When you think of the city Miami, most will associate it with a lavish lifestyle at the beach filled with a mix of Hispanic and Latin cultures. But what might shock travelers visiting for the first time is the fact that there resides an enormous community of Jews, particularly in the South Beach area. Recently this semester, I had the honor of attending a service at the esteemed and famous Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach. Temple Emanu-El is part of a rich history of Jewish culture in South Florida. Originating as a congregation of Orthodox Jews, the congregation would eventually split into two major factions: the Orthodox members and the Conservative members. Orthodox Jews strictly follow Jewish law such as adhering to kosher laws and observance of Shabbat and while Conservative Jews see Jewish law as obligatory, in reality the range of those who actually practice the old traditions can vary. Eventually, the Orthodox congregation would separate themselves and Rabbi Rackovsky would establish a new place of worship, leaving the temple to the Conservative Jews ever since.
The origins of Jewish culture in Miami come from as early as the very first foundation of the city in 1896, when more than half of the businesses at the time were owned by Jews. Gradually, as development along the east coast thrived, more and more Jews immigrated from the Northeast and settled into the city, many claiming that it reached its peak following the Second World War. At the same time though, social segregation in the United States prevented people of the faith from even having a place of worship until the 1940s. In 1948, construction for the Miami Beach Jewish Center had finished and in 1954 changed its name to Temple Emanu-El.
During my first visit to the temple on February 2nd, I thought I had prepared well enough to somewhat work my way through the service. Unfortunately, I believe I miscalculated or misjudged what I was supposed to do. Starting off with my clothes, it seemed as if my attire was not appropriate enough. A dress shirt tucked into a pair of jeans and sneakers was a stark contrast to what many other men were wearing. I also realized quickly I did not have a traditional kippah with me until I noticed a table near the entrance had a basket for guests and a rack of Tallits, although I had the option of not having to use one if I did not want to.
I had gotten there a few minutes before the service had started so I had a chance to observe the space I was in. In contrast to most Catholic churches, I did not see any icons such as religious or historical figures of the faith displayed around me. As a raised catholic, it seemed peculiar to me that there were no hand crafted statues, murals or paintings glorified of any sort besides the figures in the stained glass up above where I was sitting. Although I was sitting very close towards the back, I could make out certain shapes on a wooden door in between four pillars behind the alter. Although most seemed completely foreign to me, I was able to identify the Star of David on the corner. I am reminded of a quote from our class textbook, “the important role that fetishes, amulets, totems, icons, and idols, as well as sacred personages, sanctuaries, temples and sacraments play in the history of religion, points to them as special vehicles or bearers of sacred power.” (Livingston 38).
Once the service began, I realized that the wooden door was actually the Ark in which the Torah scrolls were placed in. The man who I believe to be the rabbi grabbed one of the scrolls and placed them onto the table and began his reading. I tried my best to keep up with what others around me were doing, whether to sit, stand or chant through prayers. Very similarly to catholic churches, small books are placed every few feet or so which visitors can use follow along the weekly reading. The books also have an English translation alongside the written Hebrew, which is read backwards, so it made it more accessible to follow along. What really stood out for me as a trained musician was the individual or Cantor who led the prayer chants. From what I have gathered, they are trained to make up the melody of the chants on the spot for every service and I was blown away by how effortlessly he made it seem every single time.
Once the service was over, I returned the kippah to the table and exited the same way I entered, greeted along the way by members of temple. Reflecting over my first visit, my presence and involvement could have been better if I had taken more into consideration the standard rituals and progression of the service. That is why I decided to attend Saturday morning Shabbat, this time much more appropriately dressed and a bit more prepared for what may come, even using a Tallit. To my surprise, I was recognized by the same members of the temple as the night before and they were very welcoming once I mentioned it had been my very first time. I brought up if any of them had gotten the chance to visit Jerusalem in Israel and how it might differ from what I had just witnessed. They clarified that synagogues and most people in Jerusalem are Orthodox Jews and that being of either a Conservative or Reform congregation meant to live by a different way of life with the same religion.
My experience at a Jewish Synagogue has been one to remember. Although I was raised as a catholic since birth, I never truly felt as connected or interested as I did during my first time at Temple Emanu-El. I greatly appreciate having the opportunity to involve myself in a community and religion so alien to what I have always been taught. I would highly encourage everyone to have a similar and if not better experience than I did visiting and learning more about what makes Miami such a rich community of religious diversity.
Livingston, James C. Anatomy of the sacred: an introduction to religion. 6th ed., Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2009.
Streiffer, Micah. “Reform and Conservative Judaism… What’s the Difference?” Rabbi Micah Streiffer, 10 May 2017, mstreiffer.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/reform-and-conservative-judaism-whats-the-difference/.
Kohn, Rabbi Daniel. “What To Expect At Synagogue Services on Saturday Morning.” My Jewish Learning, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/what-to-expect-at-synagogue-services-on-saturday-morning/.
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld and Sharon Strassfeld. “Guide to the Synagogue Sanctuary, From Ark to Yad.” My Jewish Learning, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/synagogue-layout/.
Staff, MJL. “The Jewish Denominations.” My Jewish Learning, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-jewish-denominations/.