Tony Montana, Don Johnson, Dexter Morgan. The Heat, the Dolphins, Dan Marino. Cubans, cubans, ubiquitous Spanish. Nightclubs, loose-fitting Hawaiian shirts, pink cocktails, powder-white tropical beaches.
These are the images that arise inevitably in most people’s minds when they think of Miami – well, those who don’t live there, at any rate.
What doesn’t usually come to mind is a rich and fertile Jewish heartland.
Perhaps it should.
At present, there are approximately 514,000 Jews living in South Florida, the bulk of whom reside in the Miami metropolitan area, which encompasses Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach. Put another way, one in every 28 Jews hails from this part of the world.
And on October 24-25, Miami will be one of 220 cities worldwide taking part in the Shabbos Project – an initiative that invites all Jews to observe a Shabbat together in its halachic entirety.
Miami’s Jewish population reflects the color and diversity that characterizes the city as a whole (Miami has the highest proportion of foreign-born residents of any city in the world, according to the United Nations Development Program).
“Miami is an international city through and through, and the Jews who have settled here come from all over the world and are extremely culturally and ethnically diverse,” says Alyssa Baumgarten, a local attorney and family mediator who has been working since February with a dedicated team of community activists to help coordinate Shabbos Project events and activities across South Florida.
“We have witnessed a recent influx of Jews from France and South America who have complemented the long-established Jewish population, who immigrated to Miami years ago from countries like Cuba, Israel and Russia,” she says. “There is also great diversity in terms of the different generations that have settled here – from the older, retired Jewish population in Boca [Raton], to the hip South Beach population, to the yuppies and resurgence of young married couples who have settled across the region in recent years.”
Baumgarten and her team have the rather daunting task of reaching out to this vast cross-cultural milieu of Jews. Fortunately she seems to be just the person for the job.
Just a couple of minutes with her over the phone is enough to dispel the notion of the stereotypical laid-back Miamian. Indeed, Baumgarten is one of the most intensely passionate people you’ll ever encounter – passionate about life, and particularly passionate about the Shabbos Project.
She first came across the initiative in a Jewish periodical in the aftermath of its successful introduction in South Africa last year.
“I was struck by the simplicity and purity of the concept, and by the committed leadership of the country’s chief rabbi, and the remarkable way in which it was embraced right across the spectrum of the South African Jewish community,” she says.
Earlier this year, a friend emailed her the link to a YouTube video launching the international Shabbos Project.
“As I watched the video, I literally had tears streaming down my cheeks. It touched something deep inside of me. I thought, what could be more beautiful than a global initiative to unite all types of Jews from around the world and have them experience a complete Shabbat together? I immediately felt that my family and our South Florida community absolutely had to take part in this global initiative.”
She forwarded the link to all of her contacts and received dozens of similarly enthusiastic responses from people wanting to bring the Shabbos Project to Miami.
Word spread, and soon afterward, a group of prominent community leaders, rabbis and passionate individuals met at her house to plot the way forward.
From this meeting, a core group of volunteers emerged. They began by initiating contact with approximately 180 Jewish synagogues and schools and enlisted the support of powerful communal bodies such as The Greater Miami Jewish Federation, as well as outreach groups such as Chabad and NCSY. They then dived into data collection, MailChimp lists, social media, posters and flyers, bidding, printing, contract negotiations, consensus building, ordering, and various other endeavors.
Fast forward a few months, and the results of this ardent legwork are starting to crystallize.
A “Challah Bake” taking place at the Miami Beach Convention Center – the largest indoor arena in the city – will kick off the Shabbos Project with suitable aplomb, with thousands of women and girls anticipated.
“As you can imagine, the logistical details involved in coordinating an event of this magnitude are overwhelming,” says Linda Bogin, who is overseeing the Challah Bake.
“Thankfully, though, we are almost there, having procured all the necessary ingredients and equipment, and recruited groups of student volunteers to help set up the venue, as well as a team of experienced halla bakers to assist with the actual halla preparations.”
The baking team has even developed a novel halla recipe for the occasion.
“We tried out a new method that enables halla to be prepared using room-temperature water and rapid-rise yeast [rather than the traditional warm water and active yeast combo],” says Bogin. “This was not an easy task – it took our team of experienced halla bakers 12 attempts before we perfected the recipe!” The students helping out at the Challah Bake are from RASG Hebrew Academy, Sha’arei Bina and Bais Yaakov – among a sizable contingent of local (religious and secular) Jewish day schools actively involved in the Shabbos Project.
Robin Jacobs (one of the original group of four who set their sights on bringing the Shabbos Project to Miami) worked alongside Elias Hochner (one of the city’s most respected rabbis and educators) and Mauricio Gluck (another key member of the Shabbos Project team and a former chair of the school’s board) to bring RASG Hebrew Academy on board.
The school itself takes pride in representing the diverse Jewish population in South Florida, and in any given year, students at the Hebrew Academy represent 20 different nationalities.
“Each student at the RASG Hebrew Academy brings their own unique customs to the school,” says Jacobs, “and the Shabbos Project affords them the opportunity to share their common ancestry and traditions with their classmates.”
RASG’s mission statement focuses on unity and diversity. No surprise, then, that the school’s administrators and students are excited to be part of a project that promotes both of those values.
“In the end, it was an easy pitch,” says Jacobs. “The Shabbos Project is the ultimate Jewish unity experience.”
Hochner, incidentally, is also a teacher at the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, which offers community adult Jewish education in a trans-denominational environment.
In conjunction with Melton’s local Miami director, he has been successful in signing up a number of Jewish students of all persuasions enrolled at the school.
For most people, it seems, the stipulation to keep a full, halachic Shabbat isn’t too great an impediment.
“One of the great things about the Shabbos Project is that it isn’t just for Orthodox Jews,” says Hochner. “Shabbat in general has an appeal that transcends the boundaries we’ve put up within our communities, which is perhaps why this initiative has such a wide appeal. It has the potential to break down those walls – even if it’s only for 25 hours.”
Gary Glickstein, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom, Miami Beach’s oldest and largest Reform synagogue, shares these sentiments.
He will be joining fellow community bulwark Marc Philippe, rabbi of the Conservative Temple Emanuel, in encouraging his congregation to keep the Shabbat of October 24-25.
“In the present divided fabric of Jewish life, I believe it is essential that we find ways to join together in common commitment,” says Glickstein. “Throughout our existence as a people, Shabbat has served as a spiritual refuge and a source of harmony and peace for Jews everywhere. The Shabbos Project has the potential to bring Jews together in ways that haven’t been seen for a very long time. Imagine the experience of once again uniting as ‘one people with one heart.’” Glickstein and Phillipe were first approached by Gita Galbut and Helene Berkowitz, a dynamic duo whom Baumgarten describes as “the perfect ambassadors for the Shabbos Project – filled with ahavat Yisrael [love for their fellow Jews], and with such beautiful smiles and such sincere passion, a passion that is infectious to all those they encounter.”
But Galbut and Berkowitz haven’t just been getting the word out. They’ve also rolled up their sleeves and teamed up to organize a shabbaton (Shabbat retreat) that weekend at the Miami Beach Jewish Community Center – one that will involve, among other novelties, meals graced by professional a capella singers.
And theirs isn’t the only show in town.
Take, for example, Shalom Ber Lipskar, founding rabbi of the Shul of Bal Harbour (known simply as “The Shul”), who in typical go-for-broke Chabad fashion will be setting up a big tent on the premises and offering lavish Shabbat meals for anyone in his zip code pledging to keep Shabbat that week. His wife, Rebbetzin Chani Lipskar, a prominent community leader and educator in her own right, will be delivering the keynote address at the Challah Bake.
In addition, the Sephardic Temple Moses in Miami Beach, Young Israel of Kendall in South Miami, Bet Ovadia Downtown Center Chabad in Fort Lauderdale, and many other congregations across South Florida will be running full Shabbos Project programs. Communities within these areas can expect hospitality and meal invitations, big communal dinners, prayer services, educational activities and hotel shabbatonim.
Alix Klein, a local high school pupil, is working with NCSY to bring hundreds of fellow high-school students from across South Florida – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, from Jewish and public schools alike – to Miami Beach for one gargantuan shabbaton, while Saj Frieberg, a campus rabbi at Florida’s Miami Dade College and a veteran shabbaton coordinator, is running a similar program for university students.
Now, with five weeks to go until the big Shabbat, and while there are concerns and plenty of stress to deal with, Baumgarten’s overriding feeling is one of excitement.
“Miami is truly blessed to have such a wonderfully diverse Jewish community,” she says, “and the Shabbos Project is a unique opportunity to invite this great melting pot of cultures and perspectives to share in a common, deeply meaningful experience. It will be a beautiful Shabbat for all who are part of it.”
Jacobs, more the archetypal laid-back Miamian, is just enjoying the view.
“It’s going to be an incredible journey,” she says. “A period of 25 hours in this city that could change one life or maybe even tens of thousands of lives. Right now, though, we are simply enjoying spreading great energy and building a more cohesive and unified Jewish community.”
More than 100 cities in the USA have signed up for the international Shabbos Project. Look out for more US city profiles in coming editions.For more info, or to sign up: www.theshabbosproject.org.