Driving down Washington Avenue in lively South Beach, one can’t help but notice the large rotunda of Temple Emanu-El. A ten-story high shining aluminum dome marks it. Inside are Byzantine-style red and white arches, red-backed seats, and a long line of red carpet. The rotunda, which was built in 1947, attracts many curious tourists. The stained-glass windows, the Jewish star in back, the beige stone columns, and the heavy wooden doors in front mark the set of white buildings as a synagogue. Temple Emanu-El, also known as the South Beach synagogue, is the largest and oldest conservative synagogue in South Beach. Classrooms and a ballroom were added in 1968.
From its inception until earlier this year, Temple Emanu-El held traditional Conservative services. Today, the temple is still Conservative, with a membership that includes families, snowbirds, and a congregation that is 20% Hispanic. However, in the spring of 2010, the synagogue decided to shift its approach. Jonathan Cohen, Emanu-El’s new executive director fresh from southern California, plans to hold more diverse, modern services. He is working to lead the local Jewish community into a decade of arts, music, politics, discussion, and of course, religion. Cohen wants to reach out to young, unaffiliated Jews. “We’re (getting ready) to start Friday Night Live,” said Cohen. “This is a very musical service, with a band. There’s a big social event afterwards with food and alcohol.” Cohen is also planning a series of Saturday morning and Sunday night speakers, concerts, and social events.
The talks will include a visit by the Dalai Lama and a talk by Gil Hoffman, chief correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. Music is a centerpiece of the program. The circular layout of the temple’s sanctuary creates a natural stage with seating for over 1,300. Members of the Miami Symphony Orchestra and the New World Symphony Orchestra are set to perform this fall. In addition, Temple Emanu-El invites student musicians from the University of Miami and the local area to hold mini-concerts.
Every Shabbos, the temple’s canto, Marc Philippe, brings Ashkenazi and Sephardic melodies to services. Philippe, who is from France, plays guitar and flute. He is often accompanied by Hector Priven, an accomplished piano player and the synagogue’s accountant.
Temple Emanu-El has several programs, including Torah on Tap, which gives young people a chance to talk about the Torah and everyday life at bars and restaurants, Hebrew school on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday for children, a Kadima youth group for middle school students as well as a United Synagogue Youth group for high school students. All of the services at Temple Emanu-El are in English.
The synagogue hosts a daily joint morning minyan with Miami Beach’s Cuban Hebrew congregation. Cohen enjoys the multiculturalism of the surrounding environment.
“South Beach is not one of the most religious places in the world. If any religion is stressed, it’s Judaism,” said Cohen.
Surrounded by Ultra-Orthodox synagogues, Cohen smiles when he hears the remark that “there aren’t as many Jews in Miami Beach” as there are in the rest of South Florida.
“That’s where most of the unaffiliated Jews are (in Miami Beach). We’re trying to form a niche here. When you come to Temple Emanu-El, you will find an open atmosphere based on the welcoming of visitors. We’re on the upswing,” said Cohen.