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July 29, 2015 / 13 Av, 5775
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Miami Beach Memoirs

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We arrived in the oppressive summer heat and humidity of Miami Beach in July 1964. We moved into a very small, three-bedroom house – with no air conditioning – about six blocks from Congregation Beth Israel. The children soon made friends and happily played outdoors all day. Jackie slipped seamlessly into the role of rebbetzin, and everyone immediately loved and appreciated her.

Many wealthy Jews from all over North America wintered in Miami Beach. In the pre-condo days, large kosher hotels accommodated these visitors. Several owners of these hotels were active members of my shul. They encouraged their guests to attend our synagogue, especially for Shabbat services.

The winter visitors – many very important and well known in the Jewish world – flocked to the synagogue, as did newcomers to our neighborhood. Seating was rapidly becoming scarce.

Heaven helped Congregation Beth Israel. Our shul was located within a strip mall. On the corner was a large supermarket, part of an expanding chain owned by a wealthy Miami Beach Jew. The supermarket decided to purchase and demolish the entire strip in order to increase parking. After all the store owners had sold out to the supermarket, its lawyer invited the synagogue’s officers to a meeting to finalize the purchase of our leasehold.

In anticipation of this windfall, the congregation borrowed money and purchased a house and lot across the street, where we planned to move. Our board of directors had appointed a committee of three to negotiate with the supermarket. For some reason, these three very accomplished businesspeople took me along to the meeting as well.

The board had instructed them to demand the appraised value of our lease, which was $35,000 to $40,000. As we drove to the meeting, these experienced businessmen began discussing the negotiation. After a long deliberation, they agreed that $50,000 would be a windfall for the congregation.

At the meeting, the supermarket’s lawyer was very curt and cold. He told us we were holding up a very important move for the supermarket and bluntly asked us, “How much do you want for your lease?”

One committee member, searching for a starting point in the negotiation process, blurted out, “Seventy-five thousand dollars!”

“Done!” said the lawyer without hesitation. “It’s a deal.”

We now had enough funds to build a new synagogue, and we hired a brilliant architect who designed a building that was both striking and functional. Its roof was of draped concrete, recalling the curtained roof of the Mishkan in the desert. The sanctuary, round and beautiful, was surrounded with exquisite stained glass windows. The women’s balcony was delicate and practical, with good sight lines.

The building contained classrooms, a kitchen, a social hall, offices for the rabbi and the synagogue secretary, and a fine chapel/bet midrash, also decorated with impressive stained glass windows.

Once the building was up, the synagogue was filled every Shabbat, and my extensive classes were also very well attended. I continued my daily Talmud classes and initiated a weekly Jewish history class for women.

Our children adjusted very well to Miami Beach and the Hebrew Academy. They all had friends, many less observant than we were. We always impressed upon our children that they should not be overly impressed or influenced by what their friends or classmates did or said. We didn’t judge how others spoke, dressed, or behaved. We allowed our children freedom and relied on their good judgment, while laying down a code of behavior that they understood and adhered to pretty much ungrudgingly.

To enrich my son’s Torah studies, I formed an after-school “hockey league” that met in the synagogue. After the boys played and had refreshments, I studied Talmud with them. I also conducted Shabbat afternoon Mishnah classes for the boys of the synagogue at my home, rewarding their attendance with candy.

About the Author: Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. Formerly an executive vice president of the Orthodox Union and rabbinic administrator of the OU’s kashrus division, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997.


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