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Banking On A New Space, Chabad of Clearwater Expands

As bank closures swept across the country in late March, a shuttered Bank of America building in Clearwater, Florida, found new life as a vibrant Chabad center.

Rabbi Levi & Miriam Hodakov, directors of Chabad of Clearwater, had been eyeing the property since June 2021. Situated in a prime location on a bustling street corner that attracts thousands of passing cars on a regular basis, it would be an ideal space to host Chabad’s expanding activities and community needs.

Chabad of Clearwater has been around the block before in its search for a suitable space.  In 2017, with the generous support of donors Moris & Lillian Tabacinic and Marvin & Linda Feldman, they purchased a neighboring lot, and broke ground on construction in October 2019. But with the onset of the pandemic, the project faced setbacks and plans came to a halt. “We were left spinning our wheels, trying to figure out what to do,” says Rabbi Hodakov.

The Hodakovs and their community members continued to look into other options, and from time to time, the rabbi inquired with Bank of America’s transaction manager for updates on the status of the building, but each time the answer was the same: The bank was not for sale.

Signs from Above

Until it was. In March 2022, the bank announced permanent closure. Sofie Menachem, a realtor and close friend of the family who had been an integral part of the property search, put the rabbi in touch with a commercial broker in her office.

When the building was finally listed and a public bidding process was initiated, members of the Clearwater community and beyond signed a petition to encourage the bank to sell to the Chabad center. Frank Hibbard, then-mayor of Clearwater, also wrote a letter on behalf of Chabad. 

During this time period, Rabbi Hodakov received a call from a chaplain at a local hospital requesting his presence. A deteriorating patient wanted a rabbi to come say prayers with her. To his surprise, the patient’s son turned out to be Louis Fanelli, whose wife, Susann, had served as the former manager of the bank. Rabbi Hodakov and the Fanellis made plans to stay in touch. A short while later, toward the end of January, Chabad of Clearwater received the good news: the bank was theirs. 

Closing and Opening

Chabad closed on the property on the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. An auspicious date, explains the rabbi, for on this day, the Jewish people inaugurated the establishment of the mishkan (Tabernacle, or the roving sanctuary) in the desert. “It was the perfect day to set up our mishkan here in Clearwater.” 

Rabbi Hodakov invited Susann and her husband to come tour the property with him after the closing. She showed him around the place she had known well for years. And then, inaugurating the new facility with a Jewish rite of passage, they celebrated an impromptu bar mitzvah. Louis stood inside the building and wrapped tefillin for the first time in his life. It was a special moment symbolic of the building’s transformation from a financial institution to a center of spiritual wealth.

A recent class in the new Chabad house

The wait for the building was long but worth it. “It was very exciting to spend our first Shabbat there,” Sofie says. “It was very emotional for me, since we had gone through such a long process to get there.” 

At the community’s first Seder in the bank-turned-Chabad House, the children searched for the afikoman hidden in the vault that held over 800 safe deposit boxes. The boxes have since been removed and the vault will be repurposed for the Chabad center’s storage needs.

Some features of the bank will be reimagined. Hodakov hopes to convert the bank’s drive-through into an attraction unique to the Southern United States: a kosher drive-through selling everything from food to Judaica items.

Most of the space will be remodeled.  “It is a shul, after all, and not a bank lobby,” Rabbi Hodakov laughs. “We are making plans for repainting, taking down the glass teller walls, and buying furnishings in anticipation of the grand opening at the end of the summer.”

The Hodakovs are also exploring the possibility of opening a full-service sit-down deli. They already run a grocery store, Clearwater Kosher, featuring imported kosher staples such as meat products, dairy items, and favorite Israeli snacks from bamba to bourekas.

Lead donors Marvin Feldman and his wife Linda, are thrilled with the outcome of their involvement. “The fact that one can be proud to walk around with a yarmulke on or to go out on the beach and light a public menorah is truly phenomenal,” Marvin says.

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