They Started Sea Shul Down In Seaside

Sea Shul started with a series of potluck dinners

The 30-A corridor of planned beachside communities in Walton County has long been a popular destination for visitors from Jewish communities throughout the South. Now, a new congregation is being formed in Seaside to welcome visitors and serve the year-round and seasonal residents.

Sea Shul has been holding monthly programs as it continues to organize into a congregation.

Michelle Hayes Uhlfelder, interim vice president of Sea Shul, said the idea to start a synagogue has been discussed for years, “it just now has the right people at the right time.”

Since Walton County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, “we want to make sure we have an inclusive Jewish community available.”

For visitors, “we’re wanting to provide an opportunity for people who are visiting our area to have a second Jewish home, tap into services, have the ability to participate,” she added.

Along with the overall growth, the area’s Jewish population continues to increase as the panhandle becomes more popular.

As the son of Seaside founder Robert Davis, Micah Davis said he grew up as one of a handful of Jews in the area. In fact, when he was 11, the family moved to San Francisco and started managing Seaside remotely, partly to give him a Jewish education and a Bar Mitzvah.

Robert Davis noted that when his son was growing up during the town’s development, “the Steins and the Davises were the only Jews for miles.”

Micah Davis said “it did feel lonely at times,” and a lot of people were unfamiliar with Jews. When his being Jewish came up, “they don’t know what to do with that, what it means.”

Now back in Seaside, “We had this chapel space and I’d been wanting the experience of knowing more about Judaism,” he said. A close friend in Los Angeles would talk about her rabbi’s “learned and philosophical” speeches, and he wanted that kind of experience, but “it’s not easy to obtain here unless you drive 40 minutes, an hour or longer in the summer.”

He and Uhlfelder started talking about organizing the Jewish community, and “it was her energy, enthusiasm and focus” that jump-started the process, he said.

Uhlfelder has been in Seaside for 15 years, and said when people move to the area, they are used to having their shul be within walking distance, or relatively close. In Seaside, one had to travel close to an hour to Panama City or the Fort Walton area.

Joel Axler tells the Purim story at the Seaside Chapel on March 3

Aside from Pensacola, most organized Jewish life in the panhandle is relatively recent. Beth Shalom in Fort Walton Beach was established in 1985. B’nai Israel in Panama City was formed in 1992, then Achdut Israel in 2004. Beth Israel launched as an Orthodox congregation in Destin in 2006, then became Chabad of the Emerald Coast in 2013. Chabads have since been established in Panama City Beach and Pensacola in 2018.

For the past year and a half, the Chabad in Destin has been hosting occasional gatherings along 30-A as well.

Last summer, Micah Davis and Uhlfelder started reaching out to others to see if there was interest in establishing a congregation, and organized a potluck dinner in July at Uhlfelder’s house. The initial email said to forward the invitation “to everyone you know,” Uhlfelder said. “We started to find people, and we were shocked at how many people were here.” About 50 attended the first gathering.

People started making connections, whether by age group or part of town, and the process began.

While Uhlfelder was working at Sundog Books last year, a woman noticed her Star of David necklace, and Uhlfelder told her that they were working on establishing a congregation. The woman remarked that her husband is a rabbi, and they were in town on vacation.

Rabbi Jonathan Crane from Atlanta “gave so kindly of his time” in advising them on how to establish a congregation, Uhlfelder said. He is the Scholar of Bioethics and Jewish Thought at the Emory University Center for Ethics.

In October, there was a second gathering at Micah Davis’ home, where even more people showed up, and still more at a Chanukah celebration in December.

Starting in October, a founding committee was formed to develop a vision for the Jewish community of Seaside. Uhlfelder said they had one advantage immediately — places to meet, through the use of different buildings in Seaside, such as the chapel and assembly hall. “We just had to find everyone to put it together.”

They officially incorporated with the state in January, by which point about 30 families were involved. The name Sea Shul was chosen because “It was playful, it was fun, and it was also inclusive, and caught our area, Seaside, 30-A, the beach vibe… Simple, yet you could identify it if you were Jewish,” Uhlfelder explained.

They wanted to start holding services in addition to the dinners, so on March 3, the Shabbat evening before Purim, they held a brief Purim service in the chapel, then went to the assembly hall for dinner.

The big “coming out party” was their Passover Seder, which reached capacity at 70, including a large number of children. Crane, who coincidentally had already planned a vacation to the area, was tapped to lead the Seder, which was catered by Kosher Cajun in Metairie.

At the Seder, the congregation’s logo was unveiled — a Star of David formed by six fish, in a nod to the beach.

Robert Davis said that Uhlfelder and his son deserve a lot of credit for reaching out to other families and getting everyone together for dinners, “and eventually for services in the Seaside Chapel, and a spectacular Seder, presided over by a dynamic young rabbi. I am proud of them and amazed at their accomplishment.”

Aside from short-lived breakaway congregations, and the establishment of Chabad centers, the most recent other new congregations in the region were Beth Shalom in Auburn in 1989 and Northshore Jewish Congregation in Mandeville in 1996. The Jewish Federation of Oxford was established in December 2015.

The organizing committee is consulting with rabbis on how to continue to grow the congregation and “launch us into the next phase,” Micah Davis said.

He said over the past year, every time it felt like they hit a roadblock and needed an extra push, “we found it… there’s a natural, unstoppable evolution and force that feels like this is meant to be.”

Sea Shul is now organizing a Mitzvah Day and working out details on membership for residents, part-timers and frequent visitors. They are also working out how to have regular services, likely relying on visiting rabbis and local talent, and what style of services would be the best fit. There are also the nuts and bolts of developing bylaws and a mission statement.

The congregation has also set up a Facebook page and an email list for those who are interested in their activities, and a website is being developed. Since Passover, there was a Mother’s Day potluck and a Shavuot service.

“Everyone is excited about how to get involved,” Uhlfelder said.

Davis said Sea Shul is a place for community members to “get together with people where there is an unspoken understanding, history and culture. For people living in cities, they take that for granted.” Also, the congregation’s presence will help educate the general community about Judaism.

Uhlfelder said Sea Shul would not have been possible without the support of the Davises, and the numerous community members “that are driven to make it happen and are willing to give their time and resources.”

(Updated June 13 with corrected title for Uhlfelder)