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Historical Society honors the late Joseph Wittenstein

The Historical Society of Central Florida will present its 2017 Donald A. Cheney Award posthumously to Joseph Wittenstein, whose contributions were vital in preserving the history of Central Florida’s Jewish community.

The award presentation is slated for 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 30, at the Orange County Regional History Center.

Wittenstein, who died in 2008 at the age of 94, was the leader of a major public accounting firm whose longtime community service included membership on the board of the Orange County Historical Society (now the Historical Society of Central Florida).

During the celebration of our nation’s Bicentennial in 1975-1976, Wittenstein prepared a manuscript on Jewish settlers for the Orange County Bicentennial Committee that has long been an essential document about the history of the Orlando area’s Jewish community. It will be on display in the upcoming exhibit titled “Kehillah: A History of Jewish Life in Orlando” (Nov. 12-Feb. 20), a collaboration of the History Center and the Greater Orlando Jewish Community.

“Through his work with the historical society, Joe Wittenstein contributed immensely to the creation of the History Center, and his manuscript on the Jewish community provided a significant document for our research collection,” says Michael Perkins, the Historical Society’s executive director. “He’s a major figure in preserving our area’s history.”

Both sets of Wittenstein’s grandparents came to Orange County from Pittsburgh in 1912. Peter David Wittenstein had a 100-acre citrus grove on the south shore of Lake Fairview, and Israel Shader owned a dairy farm in the Fairvilla area. Dr. Philip Phillips was Wittenstein’s godfather.

In his writings and in interviews, Wittenstein recalled Passover services when his family gathered around the farmhouse table in the early 20th century. He also recalled the discrimination Jews long faced, including the job-hunting difficulties he encountered when he returned to Orlando in 1946 after serving in naval intelligence during World War II.

In addition to his support of history, Wittenstein was treasurer of Congregation Ohev Shalom and served on the board of what would become Orlando Health. At Wittenstein’s death, Rabbi Aaron Rubinger of Congregation Ohev Shalom described him as a man of “integrity, honor and wisdom,” whom “everyone in our community looked up to.”

First presented in 1992, the annual Cheney award honors community champions who embody dedication to Central Florida’s heritage and to civic engagement. The award carries on the legacy of its namesake, Judge Donald A. Cheney (1889-1983), founder of the Orange County Historical Society and the Orange County Historical Museum, the predecessors of the current Historical Society and History Center.