The Founding

Temple Israel, South Florida’s first reform synagogue was founded in 1922 in answer to a need for less structured, less traditional services than were available at that time in Miami. The temple’s first home was on what is now Biscayne Boulevard and N.E. 13th Street.

Within five years, with 216 member families, the congregation boasted not only a new building, but their own Rabbi. Rabbi Jacob H. Kaplan joined the temple, in 1927, at its current location (N.E. 19th Street), just a block and a half west of stylish Biscayne Boulevard. Rabbi Kaplan remained with the temple, in various capacities, until his death in 1965. His Temple Israel Scrapbooks are accessible online. Colman Zwitman became the temple’s rabbi in 1936, serving until his untimely death from World War II related injuries in 1949. The synagogue’s continued growth justified the building of a religious school (named after Rabbi Zwitman), social hall in 1954 and assorted office and classroom space by 1960.


History

temple_israel_historyUnlike most synagogues in South Florida, we have a long history. We were founded in 1922, and have been in the same location since 1928. In some respects, the history of Temple Israel is the history of Miami.
For more than 90 years, Temple Israel has been a Jewish beacon in the central city of Miami. It has had a unique role in South Florida—maverick, intelligent, progressive.

Temple Israel served the needs of Jews throughout the twentieth century, and continues to do so in the twenty-first century.

The First Golden Age

Rabbi Joseph Narot served as Temple Israel’s rabbi from 1950 until his death in 1980. Rabbi Narot was brilliant, learned, liberal, and outspoken,and became the voice of Judaism in South Florida, Boldly speaking out for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, he encouraged his congregation to live Judaism by being actively engaged in local, national and world issues. Rabbi Narot was joined in 1952 by Temple Israel’s first cantor, the beloved Jacob Bornstein. The temple became a leader in social action, hosting the first area meetings of Christian and Jewish clergy, the first formal contact between white and African American clergy, and the earliest formal encounters of Spanish-speaking and English-speaking clergy. The congregation established the first local Head Start program. During Rabbi Narot’s tenure, Temple Israel grew to become one of America’s largest synagogues, with approximately 1,800 families, so large in fact that High Holy Day services were held off campus in the Miami Beach Convention Center. As Temple Israel grew to greatness, so did many of its families. The temple membership rolls were and continue to be a who’s who of South Florida’s leading Jewish families.

A Retrospective

Over the decades, economically and demographically, Miami changed. New construction on islands and suburban neighborhoods as well as the greater freedom that cars provided to live away from where one worked opened up new challenges for the inner city congregation. As early as the 1950s, the leadership of Temple Israel considered moving to the suburbs, but in a brave move, rejected that alternative. The decision to remain in the city, according to the published history of the temple, "means significant contribution to the revitalization of the downtown area, but it runs contrary to the nationwide flight of people and religious institutions from metropolitan areas to the suburbs.” Temple Israel’s membership declined, as Jews moved to the suburbs. Despite the efforts of distinguished clergy—including Rabbi Rex Perlmeter (currently Director of the Congregational Consulting Group for the Union for Reform Judaism), the late Rabbi Chaim Stern (editor of the Gates of Prayer reform prayer book series), Rabbi Rabbi Jody Cohen (formerly Southeast Regional Director for the Union for Reform Judaism), Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn (currently of Washington, D.C.), and Cantor Rachelle Nelson (currently Cantor at Temple Beth Am in Miami)—membership fell to fewer than 400 families. But through these difficult years, Temple Israel remained committed to the central city. In 1980 then-President Peter Bermont explained that "The inner city is the place we are. And we are what we are because of the inner city. We draw from so many constituencies. Our strength is that we have the ability to take from different areas. And, as downtown redevelops, we become the focal point of religious life." And that is where our modern story of revival and spiritual growth begins…

Temple Israel Today

Miami is now a thriving, vibrant multicultural international city. Temple Israel still is in the heart of the central city and provides the pulse of Jewish life downtown. The temple's neighborhood has profited from a renaissance of redevelopment, redirection and recommitment with a vision that matches that of our congregational leaders. Artfully designed apartment buildings and upscale condominiums have been built nearby, and Temple Israel is blocks from Wynwood, Midtown, and the Design District. The Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, four blocks away, is located, aptly, on the site of Temple Israel’s home from 1922 to 1926. Temple Israel has benefitted from the return of families to the central city. In 2002, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz became the temple’s spiritual leader, bringing a new, rich spirituality to the temple. Five years later, he went on to serve as our Scholar-In-Residence, bringing both study heaped in our rich wealth of tradition, as well as unique and out-of-the-box programming to the campus until his retirement in 2013. Rabbi Jody R. Cohen, who served for ten years as the Regional Director for the Southeast Council of the Union for Reform Judaism, joined the temple as its Senior Rabbi, April 2007. Rabbi Cohen continued the temple’s tradition of commitment to inclusiveness and to social justice. In 2012, Rabbi Tom Heyn became Temple Israel's spiritual leader. Rabbi Heyn, an innovative leader in contemporary Jewish life, music and spirituality, has brought new approaches to progressive Judaism.