The last time worshippers prayed in the main sanctuary at Beth David Congregation, a forbidding wooden wall stood between them and their spiritual leaders.
Those called to the Torah had to climb 10 steps to the bima (pulpit), symbolizing the ascent to a place accessible only to the chosen.
That was in June. But when worshippers return to the synagogue, in Miami’s Roads section, for Rosh Hashana, they’ll find the bima opened up to a broad, welcoming expanse.
Layers of shallow steps evoking shore-bound ocean waves have, figuratively, washed away all obstacles between themselves, their rabbi, cantor and congregational leaders.
The sanctuary transformation is Miami’s oldest Jewish congregation’s 100th birthday present to itself, a major milestone in the evolution of a religious, educational and community institution founded in 1912 by a Key West merchant named Morris Zion.
The congregation is a historic amalgam of smaller congregations, and the “parent’’ of Temple Bet Shira, in Southwest Miami-Dade.
It’s no accident that in this season of spiritual rebirth, Rabbi Hector “Tate’’ Epelbaum calls the structural changes not a renovation, but a “renewal’’ for Beth David, which he joined in 2006.
“We tried last year a new experience: installing a temporary lower bima for the High Holy Days,’’ said Epelbaum, 52, an Argentine by way of Israel and Miami Beach’s Cuban Hebrew Congregation.
“We removed the first three rows of the sanctuary with the idea that the clergy and those who are speaking from the bima will be closer to the congregation — no barriers, no idea that the rabbi and cantor are higher and the congregation is on a lower level, symbolically speaking.’’
Worshippers, many the children and grandchildren — some the great-grandchildren — of earlier members, loved it and wanted a permanent change, he said.
“Beth David is in the blood of our members,’’ he said, a living example of Jews’ obligation to pass the faith from one generation to the next.’’
Ed Sachs, president of the temple’s board and a member since 1982, said that the 400-family congregation “has been talking about [renovating] for 15 years, so with us moving forward into a new century, it was time to get it done.’’
Rosh Hashana, the two-day Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on Sunday, when Beth David members will pray in the synagogue’s small chapel. The updated, 1,070-seat sanctuary, named for the late Walter and Ruth Falk, unveils on Monday morning, the first full day of the Jewish year 5773.
A fund that Ruth Falk created after her husband died in 1996 underwrote the work, the cost of which temple officers declined to reveal.
His mother established an endowment as “a down payment for the total renovation of the synagogue,’’ said son Joe Falk, 58, a past president. She attached no strings, so that any future board could decide when to dip in.
The time seemed right in 2012, “if you believe that the narrative of our 100-year [anniversary] is a celebration of the past but a commitment to the future,’’ said Falk, public policy advisor at the Akerman Senterfitt law firm. “It does show…to the Jewish community here in South Florida that we’re not going anywhere.’’
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.
The congregation, still largely Anglo, draws mainly from Brickell, downtown, Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, minimally from its surrounding Roads neighborhood, once heavily Jewish.
A newly formed “young professionals’’ group recently drew more than 100 people to a happy hour at Tobacco Road, Sachs said.
“We’ve gone through a lot of changes in the past few years, but we’re building for the next 100 years,’’ said Sachs, a CPA. That includes offering special deals on annual dues, and relying more on voluntary giving.
He said the sanctuary’s new look and feel gives him “chills.’’
Interior designer Gisela Martin kept some of the old, most notably the ark, the retro-’50s brass chandeliers and backlit wall sculptures, and updated other features with a nod to tradition. She painted the white dome above the bima sky blue. The main lectern is portable. was trying to give to a more transitional feel,’’ said Martin. “I kept the ark the way it was, which has the Old World feel,’’ streamlined the paneling with lighter, horizontal-grain wood, and highlighted several details with silver leaf.
Cantor Julie Jacobs said that a new sound system enables the whole room to see the 14-voice choir, and makes it easier for her to “connect’’ with the rabbi.
“Just the sound itself makes it even more meaningful and spiritual,’’ she said.
Joe Falk, who saw the changes for the first time on Thursday, thinks his parents would have been as happy about them as he is.
“It’s a good start,’’ he said, “and I’m looking forward to the renovation of the rest of the building.’’