Outreach in Spanish grows temple ranks
As South Florida’s Jewish population ages, temples expand their congregations by offering services in Spanish.
When Rabbi Shloime Halsband became the spiritual leader of California Club Chabad five years ago, Friday night worship barely drew a minyan — the 10 men required to hold an Orthodox prayer service. He considered moving the shul to nearby Aventura. Today, the North Miami Beach synagogue has nearly 400 members.
His secret? Recruiting the neighborhood’s newest Jewish members: Uruguayans, Venezuelans, Argentines.
”When I started working here, the whole thing turned toward Spanish-speaking Jews,” said Halsband, a Hasidic rabbi who’s originally from Argentina. As South Florida’s Jewish population ages, moves north, or both, growth is increasingly coming from abroad, especially from South and Central America. Now, as Jews prepare to observe Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year which begins tonight at sundown, many synagogues are conducting Spanish-language High Holiday services, using Spanish-Hebrew prayer books and hosting classes on the holidays’ significance in Spanish.
Until the 1990s, the majority of the area’s Spanish-speaking Jews came from Cuba. But in recent years, the number of Jews from Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina and other Latin American countries has spiked as immigrants have fled due to economic and political conditions. Often, they arrive with limited contacts and language skills, and synagogues offer a way to get connected.
”When you arrive in a new land, you don’t know anybody. You don’t speak the language. You’re like a baby,” said David Chueke, who joined the California Club Chabad shortly after moving to Miami from Buenos Aires four years ago. “You find support in God.”
The influx of Hispanic Jews may help stabilize the area’s Jewish population, which has been in decline for three decades, said Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami demographer who conducted a demographic survey last year of Miami-Dade’s Jewish population for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
The survey found that Miami-Dade’s Jewish population dropped from 138,600 to 113,300 between 1994 and 2004, an 18 percent decline.
Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic Jewish adults in Miami-Dade nearly doubled in that same period, from 5,300 to 9,500. The last major demographic survey in Broward County was done in 1997, which showed that Hispanic Jews accounted for nearly 2 percent of the county’s 210,000 Jewish adults.
”There’s no question that the in-migration of Latin Jews has helped to counter balance some of the natural attrition in the Jewish population,” said Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
Rafi Rosenberg has seen it firsthand. Rosenberg conducts services at his North Beach synagogue in Hebrew, but most other functions occur in what he calls ”Miamese” — a blend of English and Spanish dialects. Rosenberg, who picked up Spanish during his three years as a rabbi in Colombia, said the hybrid language reflects changes in the neighborhood — and new blood in the synagogue. The majority of Skylake Synagogue’s 85 families come from Central and South America, Rosenberg said. Just 15 people remain from the longtime congregation.
”When I came, there were probably 20 members left,” said Rosenberg, who joined the 40-year-old synagogue two years ago. ?The synagogue’s really gone through an amazing rejuvenation. It went from being a much older synagogue that was on its way out to having a young population.”
Skylake Synagogue and California Club Chabad are among a handful of synagogues flourishing due to an influx of Latin American Jews. Others include Temple Beth Tov-Ahavat Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Little Havana, Beth Torah-Benny Rok Campus, a Conservative synagogue in North Miami Beach, and Aventura Chabad, an Orthodox shul.
Their rabbis are responding by reshaping their services, hiring Spanish speakers and offering bar and bat mitzvah classes in Spanish. Halsband, for example, purchased Spanish-Hebrew prayer books and launched a Spanish-language Kabbalah class.
Rafael Masckauchan, 32, who moved to Miami from Buenos Aires in 2002 along with many other Argentine Jews seeking refuge from the country’s economic crisis, said Halsband made him feel at home.
”He helped us a lot both materially and spiritually,” he said.
Masckauchan joined nine other men, most of them from Argentina, on a recent Thursday night at the synagogue, a green house on a quiet street near the California Club mall. Over vodka and cookies, the men talked about the importance of renewing their commitment to Judaism during the New Year.
”This month before Rosh Hashana is a very special month,” said Halsband, who was dressed in a wide black hat and a black suit but seemed not to notice that some of his congregants wore paint-stained jeans and worn T-shirts. ?We have to return to our roots.”
While Halsband switches easily between English and Spanish, other rabbis have hired Spanish-speakers to reach out to their new members.
Hollywood Community Synagogue recently brought in a part-time rabbi, Yossi Srugo, to teach Spanish-language classes on Hasidic philosophy, Jewish law, and Torah studies on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings. Srugo, who’s originally from Mexico, appeals to the synagogue’s newest members from Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru, said Rabbi Joseph Korf, the synagogue’s spiritual leader.
”I am limited with my Spanish and I want them to be able to learn more and be even more educated,” Korf said. ?They’re very serious about their Judaism.”
Temple Menorah on Miami Beach hired a full-time director of Latin programming in 2001. Milena Liascovitz, an Argentine, oversees the synagogue’s Spanish youth group and helps coordinate activities for Spanish senior citizens. About half of the synagogue’s members come from Latin America, mostly from Argentina, said Rabbi Eliot Pearlson.
”We wanted a Spanish-speaking full-time professional in the building, and it coincided by sheer coincidence with the initial mass influx of Argentine Jews,” Pearlson said. ?We were among the first to respond to the ritual and emotional needs of Jews arriving from Latin America.”
On a recent Saturday evening, about a dozen congregants from Argentina gathered at the synagogue for Spanish seniors’ night, a weekly gathering where seniors watch Spanish movies, discuss Israeli politics, and recently, picked up some relaxation techniques from hypnotist Jorge Peck. Discussion ranged from reincarnation to the sexual lives of chimps.
”The first time I came here, I felt like I was with my people,” said Luisa Rutenberg, a Miami resident who began attending seniors’ night a few months ago and declined to give her age. ?We feel good when we’re all together.”
The group draws people from as far away as Weston and Aventura.
Some aren’t waiting for their local synagogues to create Spanish programming.
Back in Mexico City, Esther Mercado spent 18 years raising money for Israel through an international women’s Zionist organization. She missed the sense of purpose when she moved here five years ago, she said.
”When I came here I didn’t have something like that,” said Mercado, 37, who lives in Davie and works as a Realtor. “I didn’t speak any English at all, I didn’t find any place to go.
”In Judaism you cannot be alone,” she said. “If someone knows you are alone for Shabbat or for holy days, they invite you.”