The History of Congregation Etz Chaim
Barnett Jay Freier
With help from Rev. Keith Davis - Pastor of The Metropolitan Community Church of Great Miami
Biscayne Boulevard Lutheran Church
YWCA, Downtown Miami
Aljaman’s Art Studio, North Miami Beach
19094 West Dixie Highway, Ojus
Levitt-Weinstein Funeral Parlor, Hallandale
Unitarian Universalist Church, Oakland Park
1881 N.E. 26 Street, Wilton Manors
(Former) Sun Trust Bank building – Church, Wilton Manors
Temple Beth Torah, Tamarac
The Pride Center, Wilton Manors
1974 – 1978 B. Jay Freier
1978 – 1980 Leslie Rozner
1980 – 1981 Larry Friedlander
1981 – 1983 Doree Benson
1983 – 1984 Bob Waterstone
1984 – 1985 Marc Levin
1985 – 1986 Bob Waterstone
1986 – 1988 Michael Greenspan
1988 – 1989 Jerry Greenstein
1989 – 91 Jesse Monteagudo
1991 – 1993 Mitch Novack
1993 – 1995 Ray Levi
1995 – 1996 Joshua Winters
1996 – Lauren Loebl
1996 – 1998 Michael Greenspan
1998 – 2000 Charles Green
2000 Dr. Steven Leidner
2000 – 2003 Doree Benson
2003 – 2004 Robin Gross
2004 – 2007 Brad Kane
2007 – 2010 Lyn Saberg
2010 – 2011 Robin Gross, David Yalen
2011 – 2012 Lauren Gultz
2012 – 2013 Daniela Mitrovic
2013 – 2016 Jesse Monteagudo
2016 Jack Karp
2016 – 2020 Jeff Landsman-Wohlsifer
2020 David Yalen
2020 – 2021 Robin Gross
2021 – 2022 Naomi Siegel
2022 – Louis Levin
CONGREGATION ETZ CHAIM
(Formerly THE METROPOLITAN COMMUNITY SYNAGOGUE OF GREATER MIAMI M.C.S)
In the Spring of 1974, six Jewish friends of the Metropolitan Community Church of Miami (MCC) and one nonJew joined together to conduct a Passover Seder at the church. The success of this Seder laid the ground work and planted the seed for the Metropolitan Community Synagogue of Greater Miami, one year later to become Congregation Etz Chaim. This name was proposed to us by the late Rabbi Sol Landau of Beth David Congregation. Rabbi Landau was our advocate and gave us much support. At the time the MCC was the only place in South Florida where a Gay person could worship openly.
There was a need for anonymity in the 70s and yet word got around about the Synagogue’s formation. The group opened their homes for prayer and socializing on a bimonthly basis. We next graduated to the recreation room of a condominium. Since condominium rules prohibited meetings of clubs on a regular basis, we were faced with the question “Where shall we go from here?” We found a warm welcome from the Center for Dialog, which was housed at the Biscayne Boulevard Lutheran Church. They let us use their space in the basement of the church. Our affiliation with the Church lasted almost two years. We were asked to leave when a member of the Church Board discovered we were not just a Synagogue...but a GAY Synagogue! Again, we asked the question “Where shall we go from here?’ We were informed that the downtown YWCA had been receptive to “controversial” groups. Thus began a very warm and wonderful affiliation with the Y. We thought we would be there a very long time. Unfortunately, we were wrong. The Y was supported by the United Fund. Among those who ran the Fund were individuals of less than liberal political persuasion. When they became- aware of the Y’s free thinking philosophy, they threatened to withdraw the Fund's support. The Y did not give in. When the building was sold
and destined to be destroyed, we once again had to find a new place to meet.
A member of MCC heard of our plight. He was so concerned about where we would meet that he offered us his art studio for Friday night services. We took all of our belongings and moved to Aljaman’s art studio in North Miami Beach. Every Friday night we got to the studio early and transformed it into “our” place. We set up chairs, tables, cabinets, bought the food for the Oneg, and then stayed later to break down everything and clean up. In early 1978 Aljaman decided to give up his studio and in August 1978 we took the BIG step and rented our own unit on West Dixie Highway in Ojus, just on the border of what is now Aventura.
19094 West Dixie Highway was used as a worm farm but the price and location were right for us at the time. You can imagine what this place looked like when we first rented it but we had a dream. Our first Shabbat service in this unfinished warehouse with its concrete floors, single lights hanging from roof girders and NO air conditioning or furniture was very special. In a meeting held after our first service, committees and work crews were set up and money was pledged. We took it upon ourselves to demolish the unit’s entire guts. We broke down walls and put up new ones. We installed a new ceiling, lighting, plumbing, kitchen, carpeting, step up podium, painted, and did whatever else you can think of. We did all of this work ourselves except for contracting an air-conditioning company. We were mostly in our late 20s and early 30s. We spent weekends and any of our spare time in the construction of this space.
As we grew and became stronger, we noticed a new pride and confidence in what we were doing. 1976 saw the beginning of our High Holiday services. In November of that same year, we tried to take out an ad in the Jewish Floridian. We never achieved that goal, but received a front page editorial that was to give us more publicity than we ever expected.
As the news of our existence spread across the country, another milestone was achieved. We were to become the first successful congregation in the gay and lesbian community outside of the major centers of Los Angeles and New York. We soon became the catalyst for future Congregations in other cities. This eventually led to the 1977 formation of the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations, of which we were a Charter member.
In July 1979 our Synagogue was featured as the cover story of The Miami Herald Tropic Magazine (the original copy is in this memoir). This new willingness to step forward and be recognized drew the attention of many liberal Jews in the South Florida area. With their support we eventually made an application to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). On June 7, 1980, Etz Chaim was inducted into the UAHC as their second congregation with an outreach to the Gay and Lesbian community.
In 1987 the two units adjacent to ours became vacant and we took them over. We turned one third of the property into a sanctuary and the other two-thirds into our reception room where we had great Onegs and parties. Once again, we did all of this work ourself. We were thankfully so successful that our room could not accommodate all the people we had for our parties and so we had to rent the Biscayne Gardens Civic Center for our large functions. Our parties drew over 200 people. We once again did all the setting up, provided all the food, broke down and also put on our own spectacular drag shows featuring the “World Famous Yentettes” (pictures of our productions are included in this memoir). We had no help. We were all volunteers. We invested many hours rehearsing. We made our own costumes and scenery, produced all the music and did our own choreography. We always sold out all of our shows.
In the autumn of 1981, we conducted our first workshop on being Gay/Lesbian Jews at the UAHC Southeast Region biennial in Mobile, Alabama. In 1982, it was brought to our attention that the UAHC's new Torah Commentary was quite negative when dealing with homosexuality. In response, we presented a second workshop at the next regional biennial in Jacksonville, Florida. This was followed with a presentation to the Southeastern Regional UAHC Board. February 1983, saw a unanimous resolution from the Southeast region for the changing of this section. This resolution finally came in to fruition with the 1985 announcement of a new revised Torah
During the 1980's, Congregation Etz Chaim grew by leaps and bounds. Its membership rose from sixty members at the beginning of the decade to over three hundred members in 1990. In 1983, the Synagogue acquired its own Torah from a Synagogue in Philadelphia that had closed down. One of our members flew up to Philadelphia get it. Both the Torah and member flew back to Miami sitting on an adjacent seats in the plane.
From August 4-7 1983 we were proud to host the 8th International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews. Our
theme, " “ ", עמי מיMI-AMI,” – “Who Are My People,” was carried on throughout the conference which included
participants from all around the world as well as their the families and friends.
Later that same year we hired our first professional staff person, Cantor Mindy Fliegelman. Cantor Fliegelman, an ordained cantor, conducted our High Holyday services for three consecutive years. We were also blessed to have Michael Greenspan as our occasional cantorial soloist beginning in 1985 and our full-time cantorial soloist beginning in 1998 just after his serving as our President. Michael delighted us with his accordion and knowledge of Jewish music from classical to Klezmer.
On August 23, 1991 we once again made history by installing our first Rabbi, Rachel Hertzman. At the time she was 33 years old, had two children and was married to Rabbi Rex Perlmeter of Temple Israel of Greater Miami. She was an instant hit. She served us until 1995 when Rabbi Perlmeter accepted a position as Rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
In 1995 our landlord decided to raise our rent to something we could not afford. After investing so much time and money at 19094 West Dixie Highway we once again had to pack all of our belongings and put them into a warehouse. No one did this for us. We did all the work by ourselves, but where do we to go? Fortunately, one of our members was a funeral director at Levitt-Weinstein and we arranged to temporarily use their chapel for our Friday night services. We could not do this forever, as it was a favor, and some of our members felt a little uncomfortable having services in a funeral parlor.
In spite of us having to leave our 17-year home we did come out ahead that year. On July 21, 1995 our Shabbat service was conducted by our new and openly-gay rabbi, Greg Kanter. Rabbi Kanter led us for 7 years as we held services at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Oakland Park. We also rented a separate office in Wilton Manors. Anticipating the arrival of his adopted children and the urge to move on to cooler pastures, in 2002, Rabbi Kanter and his husband Mike moved to Charleston, South Carolina where he became rabbi at temple Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.
Fortunately, we were not too long without a rabbi as Rabbi Catherine Nemiroff conducted her first Shabbat service on November 22nd. Sadly, Rabbi Nemiroff had to leave her post after only a few months of service. We were once again dependent upon lay leadership until March 2005 when Rabbi Harold Caminker became our spiritual and ritual leader. Rabbi Caminker served us for five years. During this time, we were able to take over the units adjacent to our Wilton Manors’ office and create an absolutely beautiful sanctuary. It was named in memory of our first president Jay Freier. We were able to put up our memorial boards once again and even have a lending library. We had a full time office administrator, Sherry Davidson.
In 2010 we welcomed Rabbi Noah Kitty into the fold. Rabbi Kitty joined our congregation in 2005 and when Rabbi Caminker went on to become the rabbinical leader of Temple Beth El in Sarasota FL Rabbi Kitty stepped in to take his place until 2022 when she decided to follow other paths and life’s ambitions.
In 2010 we once again became the wandering Jews as our landlord raised our rent to a price beyond which we could afford. It was a very sad time since we put so much time and money into making 1881 N.E. 26th Street into such a beautiful place. Fortunately, Rabbi Kitty had a good working relationship with Rabbi Michael Gold of Temple Beth Torah (later to become Temple Beth Torah Sha'aray Tzedek) in Tamarac, and for two years Rabbi Gold and the Temple were kind enough to let us hold our services in their Chapel. We found that Tamarac was not a place many of our congregants wanted to travel to for services since many lived on the east side in close proximity to Wilton Manors. Sun Trust bank had a building in Wilton Manors close to 1881 N.E. 26th street they were not using since they built a new building adjacent to it. They were renting it to a church and we sublet it from the church from 2013 to 2015. In 2015 we moved to the Pride Center where we are at time of this writing.
In 2012 our beloved cantorial soloist, Michael Greenspan, who had been with us for 19 years, began to show signs of dementia and was not able to perform in his usual manner. Michael entered an assisted living facility and passed away five years later in 2017. When Michael could no longer serve us, we began our search for another cantorial soloist. One of our members who had dual memberships in both our Synagogue and Temple Beth Torah was friendly with one of Beth Torah’s members who not only was a musician, composer, and guitarist but also was educated at prominent Jewish schools in New York. Jerry Berkowitz agreed to be our cantorial
soloist and was with us until July 2022. We all loved him.
Etz Chaim has participated in many local, state, national and international forums and symposiums. Locally our members have been on panels with churches, governmental organizations and other Synagogues. Our members have marched in Tallahassee and in Washington D.C. in support of human rights. In 1987 many of us joined in the March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. We sent delegates and participated in meetings of the World Congress for GLBT Jews. In February-March 2020 we created and sponsored the Israeli-Jewish LGBTQA film festival. Our synagogue members have played active and visible role in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the American Civil Liberties Union, South Florida Pride, the Stonewall Library, the Gay Men's Chorus, P-FLAG, and various AIDS organizations. We are a regular part of Broward Pride celebrations.
Throughout the years Etz Chaim has been a beacon and home for LGBTQI+ Jews, their families and their friends. We are a place where all people can feel comfortable worshiping G-d and preserving their Jewish culture and heritage. We have been a strong influence as well as integral participant in our community. Our Congregation opens up its heart to all people who believe in living in peace and accepting one another as they are without judgement.
In August of 2022, Etz Chaim hired Marcia Weinstein as our spiritual leader. She is a Cantorial Soloist and Jewish Educator, as well as a current Rabbinical Student at the Pluralistic Rabbincal Seminary. We are thrilled to have her here!!
Howard (Howie) Sorkin