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Every Lobby a Temple PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jay Beskin -- BT Contributor   
May 2013

In Aventura, condo buildings have long doubled as houses of worship

Lbigstock-Torah-Reading-In-A-Synagogue-1951089ike a retired actor, my former tenure on the Aventura City Commission continues to earn me royalties. Mine are not paid in cash (if only, he thought to himself), but in the lifelong friendship of residents who feel a kinship born of our shared stake in the building of our city.

Many of these residents take the time to send me updates on the progress of their neighborhood, their block, or their building. I enjoy their keeping me in the loop, but some days I feel like one of those guys in the federal government who sits all day monitoring the airwaves for “static.”

Lately my informants have been opening my eyes to an interesting phenomenon that portends a shift in the demographics of the Jewish population of Aventura.

In the early days of the city, several of the larger buildings, particularly in the city’s southern end, housed enough supplicants of the Jewish persuasion to create an ersatz synagogue inside the common areas of the building. Everyone would get together in the rec room and lift some spiritual weights, as it were. No doubt a sociologist would have scolded these folks for not venturing out far enough to create communal circles, but it certainly made for a convenient, if not lazy, option.

In truth, some of these temples were intended as more of a fallback than an ideal devotional setting. Most weeks, residents would prefer to head over to the luxurious, fully appointed place of worship a few blocks away. Some weeks, they might have gone north to hear the rabbi they liked, and other weeks they might gone south to hear the one they could “take or leave.”

But when there was pouring rain, or even a drizzle, or, for that matter, a threat of rain, it was a nice option to be able to fall out of bed and into a service in your own building. If you could not make the house of worship, you could at least make the worship of house.

For other, less mobile types, proscribed by increases in age and decreases in health, the in-house chapel served very nicely as a home not really away from home. Perhaps aided by a walker, or escorted by an aide, residents could easily commute the distance between their physical apartment and the spiritual department. Some folks who sneered at this option 20 years ago, when they felt energetic at all times, lately have come to appreciate the chance to conserve their waning energy.

Setting up these outlets was no simple task. Most congregants prefer some rabbinic leadership, but it is rare that a building has a big enough money pool to hire somebody. A retired rabbi or sexton living on premises must generally be conscripted as a volunteer. (A rabbi on a nice pension from his generous acolytes up north is often happy to rerun his sermons before a captive audience, one that will not complain too loudly, considering the price.)

Then a Torah scroll must be procured. A new one costs upward of $35,000 and takes six months to a year to complete. A used one might run $10,000 or $15,000.

The rest of the synagogue furniture can cost a few thousand dollars, if you want to do it right, or it can be cannibalized at no cost from the card room. Sometimes the patchwork result of grabbing chairs and tables from hither and thither has a sort of quaint charm; other times it may look quite absurd. One way or the other, these little shuls were cobbled together in quite a few venues around Aventura, overcoming the logistical barriers in creative ways.

The crisis emerges when it is time to pick a denomination. (No, not money-wise; there we always prefer hundreds.) These are religious denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Egalitarian, Reform. It is easy to say “to each his own” when dealing with individuals, but congregations require some multiple of “each” and “own” to function as a collective. Suddenly Jews are called upon to unite and wear the same stripe of tallit, and the claws are immediately unsheathed.

When it comes to the temple inside a building, a brutal democracy is the only viable approach. This is not a group of like-minded souls buying a lot together and constructing a sanctuary. In that case, if you don’t fit in, you just go elsewhere. In your own development, however, there is no elsewhere to go, at least not on rainy days. The losers in the denominational vote can either try out the other flavor and see if they acquire a taste for it, or opt out and sulk.

Judging by some of the murmuring I have heard over the years, the sulkers are well represented.

The news provided by my cadre of insiders shows a fascinating trend from the other groupings toward the Orthodox. During the dawning days of our demos, most of these democratically determined denominations produced the compromise synagogue, that is, the one in the middle: Conservative. The Orthodox tended to be outnumbered. Ironically, the people most committed to walking instead of driving on the Sabbath were enjoined to take up their staffs and traverse the desert to reach the Holy Land.

Times have been a-changing. The other denominations are finding it difficult to populate and maintain these outposts. No one is moving out by choice that I can see, but the ravages of time are whittling down the ranks of our earliest pioneers. Several buildings have made the tough decision to switch to Orthodox so the synagogue may survive.

For observers of religious trends, this propensity must be fascinating. A century ago synagogues around the country were voting to shift from Orthodox to Conservative. In law school, we studied cases from that era in which the dwindling founders of shuls sued the young upstarts for bypassing the original charter. Now it seems there is some movement in the other direction, possibly reflecting the nationwide move away from the melting pot model to the multiethnic diversity model.

At any rate, as a city, we hope this all works out in our favor. There is a class of supposedly tolerant heterodox people whose open minds are locked to any thought in any realm classified as Orthodox. Hopefully the word “Orthodox” will not become a red flag in Aventura. We have always been moderate people here, regardless of affiliation.

As long as we all respect each other, we should continue to thrive as a home for people committed to excellence.

 

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