The first Jew arrived in Miami in 1895. Over the next five years, the Jewish population rose to 25 then dropped to three. It inched back up through marriages and births, the first of the latter being Eddie Schneidman in 1907. His father, Joseph, became one of Beth David’s 14 head-of-family founders, most from Germany and Eastern Europe.
They decided to call themselves B’nai Zion, literally “sons of Zion,’’ in honor of Morris Zion, who’d immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1882. They celebrated their first Rosh Hashana together in one of the founders’ homes.
In 1913, they bought space in the historic Miami City Cemetery, and in 1917, incorporated as Beth David. Russian-born businessman David Afremow, who owned the New York Department Store at Northeast First Street and Miami Avenue, donated the first Torah scrolls.
By 1920, the fast-growing membership bought the First Christian Church at Northeast Third Avenue and Second Street. The Miami Daily Metropolis reported that on Sept. 13 that year, 65 member families celebrated the New Year in “the first edifice to be dedicated in South Florida for the worship of God according to the Hebrew belief.’’
The writer, explaining the holiday’s meaning, noted that “apart from its joyful and festive nature, Rosh Hashana is rich in moral import and significance...The fact that it is the beginning of the new year (5681) lends it special significance. It is a time of higher resolves, the turning point of the year...The festival is a gentle reminder of the brevity of human existence , but it optimistically stresses the doctrine that man, far from being a plaything in the hands of fate, can realize his life’s work if he but takes advantage of the swiftly fleeting moments.’’
By 1947, having outgrown that building, the congregation began raising $800,000 for its current structure, at Coral Way and 26th Road.
The grand stone edifice set the standard for modern synagogue design in its day, boasting soaring columns and a spacious portico, it’s balusters now wrapped in heavy chains to deter skateboarders.
Rabbi Max Shapiro, the congregation’s longest-serving rabbi (1932-1954), dedicated the temple on Feb. 13, 1949, amid great fanfare, including a motorcade from the old building. He led the first Rosh Hashana services there seven months later, on Sept. 23. At the time, Miami’s Jewish population stood at 43,000.
Since then, the campus has expanded to include a chapel, classrooms, kitchens, a ballroom, an auditorium and a museum that houses a Czechoslovakian Holocaust Torah scroll and a Jewish headstone desecrated during Kristallnacht, the 1938 spasm of Nazi violence that preceded the Holocaust.
In 1974, Beth David became the first Conservative synagogue to give women full ritual rights, and in 1979 the first Miami synagogue to elect a woman president: Barbara Waas.
Some 150 children attend a pre-k through fifth grade day school — with a pioneering program for children with autism — and a religious school. A dozen 13-year-olds will celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs this year.
Ed Sachs called the 1970s and early ’80s Beth David’s “Golden Age,’’ when the membership neared 800 families, arts and music programs flourished. Bet Shira siphoned off members from South Miami-Dade in 1985, as did Hurricane Andrew in 1992.