So what happens when a large group of immigrants from Venezuela meet an Orthodox synagogue that seeks to revitalize itself and the community? And what happens when a young rabbi, born in Israel, who kept a small Orthodox community on a Caribbean island alive and has the talent to expand the shul to meet the needs of the community, joins them?
Come with me to the town of Skylake, Florida, better known to readers as part of North Miami Beach or Aventura South. The congregation, a 140-family house of worship known as Skylake Synagogue, is located at 1850 N.E. 183 Street. The area has seen an increase in its Jewish population, and, according to the Greater Miami Jewish Foundation, it is growing by leaps and bounds.
What is responsible for the growth in this town and its neighboring communities, including affluent Aventura? The large influx of Jews from Latin America – Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Argentina and, most importantly, Venezuela. Jews are among the groups leaving those countries because of political and economic instability, which leads to kidnappings and violence in the streets.
These South and Central American Jews move to the Miami area because of the warm climate and because it boasts a strong Latin identity. Two thirds of Miami’s 5.5 million residents in its metro area are of Hispanic origin. Moreover, for South American Jews, Florida’s largest city is not too far from home and family, and even businesses left behind south of the equator. In short, the area has become the stronghold of Latin American Jewry – Miami has been nicknamed “the capital of Latin America.”
Leading the expansion of Jewish life in Skylake for the last several years is the young and dynamic Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun, a 38-year-old father of five who speaks Spanish as well as Papiamento, the language of the Caribbean. Rabbi Yeshurun has transformed the synagogue from a simple house of worship into a Jewish center. “We strive for a sense of kehillah just as Jews maintained in Latin America,” he told me. And that includes a congregation that is now very-Zionist oriented, with meetings for AIPAC, WIZO, Friends of the IDF and the American Jewish Committee.
While it may be a well-known fact that one can conceivably get along in Miami by only speaking Spanish, and while Rabbi Yeshurun is working on delivering a Shabbat talk in Spanish, members speak English in the synagogue. “We’re in America now,” said one newcomer. “We want to integrate.”
While it is considered an Ashkenazic shul, Sephardic melodies often ring out during the service. Indeed, when called to the Torah, a member is often asked if he would like the rabbi to “read tropp in Sephardic or Ashkenazic. “Actually,” said the rabbi, the “Ashkenazim enjoy Sephardic melodies and the Sepharadim enjoy Ashkenazic melodies. Everyone is happy,” he declares.
Today, the synagogue is a far cry from when the congregation was “on the threshold of closing its doors,” according to Rabbi Yeshurun.
In his short time with the shul, he has managed to activate a Hebrew school with now over 50 children and five teachers. There is also an NCSY group in a youth center. The shul has close ties with the Orthodox Union and is often graced with OU scholar-in-residence programs.
A minyan is held three times a day. And in this neighborhood, there is no problem with kosher food or kosher dining, all within short driving distance – Uncle Noodles Pizzeria, Pita Hut and Pita Plus and many more can satisfy any palate.
In one new program, “Tea with the Rabbi,” Rabbi Yeshurun goes to the home of a congregant, sits and has tea with the family. “Latin American Jewish families believe in family unity and attachments,” he noted and this program is an effort to connect with families, “to create and foster a sense of kehillah.” Among the topics he discusses with the families are religion and community adjustment.