The History of Temple Emanu-El
Temple Emanu-El is the oldest Conservative congregation on Miami Beach and is considered one of America’s most beautiful synagogues. Its impressive and eclectic Byzantine and Moorish architecture features a rotunda building and aluminum dome more than ten stories tall. The congregation has a long and venerable history as a spiritual home to the Jewish residents of the Beach for more than seven decades.
In 1938 a new congregation called Congregation Jacob Joseph of Miami Beach was founded by several Orthodox Jewish residents. Their house of worship benefitted from the spiritual guidance of Rabbi Joseph Rackovsky. The original home of the synagogue was a private house on the corner of Euclid Avenue and Fourteenth Place. During the 1930’s, the Jewish population of Miami Dade County was approximately 4500 people.
By 1940 the congregation boasted 200 members, each of whom paid ten dollars in annual dues. Mayer Frankel and Harry Sirkin (who later served as presidents of Temple Emanu-El) emerged as leaders of Jacob Joseph. The synagogue approved two name changes over the next two years, first becoming the Miami Beach Community Jewish Center and then the Miami Beach Jewish Center.
The members later divided into Orthodox and Conservative groups; the schism prompted Rabbi Rackovsky to establish a new Orthodox congregation on South Beach. The Conservative faction largely remained and the Miami Beach Jewish Center aligned itself with the Conservative Movement.
In September 1941, Rabbi Samuel Bension (a native of Palestine) arrived from New York to become the rabbi of the Miami Beach Jewish Center. The members raised $50,000 to construct a new sanctuary, which was completed and dedicated a year later. With the advent of World War II, Miami Beach was transformed from a premiere resort to a major military training center for the U.S. Armed Forces. In 1943, Rabbi Bension departed and the congregation invited Rabbi Irving Lehrman (of Montclair, New Jersey) to serve as its spiritual leader.
At the end of World War II, the Miami Beach Jewish Center announced its plans for a new building. At the groundbreaking ceremonies in December 1946, Rabbi Lehrman offered a memorable address. The domed sanctuary (which remains Temple Emanu-El’s signature) was completed in 1948 and seats 1,400 worshippers. Modeled after the Great Synagogue in Oran, Algeria, it endures as an historical landmark in the Art-Deco cityscape of Miami Beach.
The congregation continued to prosper due both to its magnificent new facility and the rapid influx of Jews from the Northeast to Miami Beach. In 1954, the Miami Beach Jewish Center changed its name to Temple Emanu-El (“May G-d be with us” in Hebrew) with the overwhelming support of the entire congregation.
The decade was a triumphant and decisive period for Temple Emanu-El. Rabbi Lehrman was a strong supporter of civil rights and saw the barriers of segregation broken in the South. The Temple’s mortgage was paid off in a festive ceremony at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Lastly, Samuel Friedland generously donated a plot of land next to the synagogue to build a ballroom and classroom building.
In 1966, the groundbreaking for a school building took place. Morris Lapidus, the world-renowned architect and designer of Lincoln Road and the Fontainebleau Hotel, oversaw the construction. The enormous Friedland Ballroom was completed, providing a beautiful venue for life-cycle events of all kinds.
Two years later, a thriving and nationally acclaimed Solomon Schechter Day School on Miami Beach was renamed the Lehrman Community Day School. Rabbi Lehrman considered LCDS the “jewel in the crown” of Temple Emanu-El. The school achieved national prominence and served as the cornerstone for Temple Emanu-El’s continued prosperity and growth.
In this era, Temple Emanu-El’s membership surpassed 1,300 families. The budget exceeded two million dollars and the staff numbered 82 full-time employees. High Holiday services, held in the Miami Beach Convention Center, attracted more than 4,000 worshippers. Rabbi Lehrman continued to serve the Jewish community, at the local and national levels, receiving numerous awards and citations for his achievements around the world. In 1979, he published his acclaimed and popular book, The Name of G-d.
These years were a time of change for Temple Emanu-El and Miami Beach generally. More than 125,000 Cuban refugees flooded into South Beach, escaping the oppression of their island country just 90 miles away. This influx prompted Temple Emanu-El to expand and reinvent its programs to reach a broader constituency. Larry Schantz, Judge Irving Cypen, and Cal Kovens evolved into the next generation of leaders at Temple Emanu-El.
Dr. Amir Baron brought the Lehrman Day School to a position of eminence in the community. The “Event of the Century” brought new momentum to Temple Emanu-El. The Temple developed a new vision and sense of purpose in light of South Beach’s emerging, diverse culture.
Rabbi Lehrman led the synagogue with great distinction for almost 50 years, retiring in 1992. Throughout the 1990’s and into the early 21st century, several members of the clergy ably served Temple Emanu-El. Among them were Rabbi Edwin Farber (of Beth Torah, Benny Rok Campus, North Miami Beach), Rabbi Leonid Feldman (of Temple Beth El, West Palm Beach), and Cantor Yehuda Shifman.
Temple Emanu-El was in need of repair as it marked its 53rd year. Through the dedication and generosity of congregants such as Stephen Muss and Dr. Phillip Frost, Temple Emanu-El’s sanctuary underwent a $2,000,000 renovation. This project was administered by famed architect and designer, Kenneth Treister. The newly-named “Frost Sanctuary” propelled Temple Emanu-El into a new century with energy and direction. In 2010 a beautiful bronze sculpture, “The Dove of Peace”, designed by Ken Treister, was placed by the steps of Temple Emanu-El’s main entrance and the adjacent plaza was adorned with imported Jerusalem stone.
Today, Temple Emanu-El stands as a vibrant, historic congregation in the heart of famous South Beach. Throughout the years the synagogue has been visited by thousands of tourists. Further, it has hosted many notable statesmen and religious leaders, among them President Ronald Reagan, President Bill Clinton, Senator Henry M. Jackson, the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu.
The synagogue’s iconic façade and distinctive architecture serve as a testament to the strength and longevity of its leadership of Miami Beach’s Jewish community. Temple Emanu-El’s contributions to the beauty of South Beach were celebrated by the Miami Beach Beautification Committee which bestowed the 2010 Beautification Award on the synagogue. The congregation continues to be a vital part of the Jewish communal landscape of South Florida.
Temple Emanu-El 1701 Washington Ave. Miami Beach, FL 33139 * 305-538-2503