Forty years ago, the late Rabbi Barry Tabachnikoff founded Bet Breira (The House of Choice) in Kendall to create an intimate “mom-and-pop” synagogue where everyone knew each other.
Fast forward to 2016, and Tabachnikoff’s son Jonathan is carrying on the dream. Building on his father’s nearly 30-year foundation, the younger Tabachnikoff, also a rabbi, has amassed a following of South-Dade families under a new congregation named Dor Chadash (the New Generation).
New beginning. New year.
On Sunday evening the budding congregation will ring in the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, with Tabachnikoff in the pulpit. Rosh Hashana marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays, which end with Yom Kippur on Oct. 12.
“The new year is always special for me, but this year even more so,” Tabachnikoff said. “[My father] would be very proud and honored to know that I followed in his footsteps.”
Tabachnikoff, 47, who returned to South Miami-Dade in 2008 after being involved in congregations in Rochester, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, will stand in the sanctuary named for his father. He will deliver his sermon from the same building, on the same street that bears his dad’s name. He will wear his father’s white robe, embroidered with the initials “B.T.” and read from his father’s Torah.
The new synagogue at 9400 SW 87th Ave., which has about 100 families, is a rebirth of sorts. Over four decades, Bet Breira, a Reform congregation at the same location, carried on. But changing demographics took a toll and it eventually merged with a nearby Conservative temple. Earlier this year, it disbanded.
“I think the Jewish holidays will solidify us as a congregation,” said Randee Breiter, a former member and current one of Dor Chadash.
In 2003, Barry Tabachnikoff suddenly died of a heart attack at age 61.
“How do you move forward when your rabbi just suddenly, instantly dies? It was a shock. He was a family member,” said Faith Mesnikoff, a founding member.
According to Bet Breira’s unofficial historians, David and Faith Mesnikoff, the elder Tabachnikoff was the glue that united everyone.
They had all been charmed by the elder Tabachnikoff’s good humor, contagious laugh and sound doctrine in the 1970s, the Mesnikoffs said of the original families.
“A group of us who were just crazy about him [and we] said, ‘You know what? We’re just going to make a congregation,’ so we did,” Faith Mesnikoff said.
And by the early 1980s, the small congregation had gathered more members, acquired land and built the temple.
The historians said the synagogue shared hearty laughs and good times through the years, but the rabbi’s death was a difficult transition nonetheless.
“Everybody really did the best they could in the circumstances,” David Mesnikoff said.
Rabbi Jaime Aklepi, who is now a rabbi at Temple Beth Am, stepped up to the task and became the senior rabbi. Don Bennett, who was the cantor at the time and has since joined Dor Chadash, said the temple continued to grow.
Then, nearly 10 years ago, things started to change: The economy was declining, as was membership.
“As demographics changed, especially over the last 10 years, the congregation found it more and more difficult financially to sustain itself,” said Jaime Aklepi, the former senior rabbi of Bet Breira.
By 2009, the synagogue merged with a conservative and reform congregation that rebranded the temple as Bet Breira Samu-el Or Olom.
But, according to University of Miami geography professor Ira Sheskin, demographics don’t tell the whole story.
“It’s too simplistic to say that’s the only reason,” Sheskin said.
The professor said studies show younger people are simply more secular and less likely to attend religious services.
A 2013 Pew report found that 41 percent of Jews under age 30 have no denominational affiliation. By contrast, only about a quarter of Jews ages 50 and older say they have no denominational affiliation.
Additionally, younger people are getting married much later in life, the professor said.
This is important to note because most Jews decide to a join a temple after they’re married and have a child — effectively, leaving synagogues without a generation of adherents for a decade.
Sheskin, who also conducted a study for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said there was only a modest decline in the population of Jews in South Miami-Dade — from 43,300 in 2004 to 40,300 a decade later.
“It was not at all that severe,” he said.
Regardless of the reason, by 2014, the congregation’s membership had slipped from its peak of 600 families in the 1990s, to about 200 families, Aklepi said.
Finally, by June, the synagogue closed its doors.
“It’s always sad when things change,” Breiter said. “There were lots of questions where we would all end up, if we would stay together.”
In late August, the temple sold for $5.3 million to buyer Albert Perez for the Mas family, according to realtor Paul Silverstein of RE/MAX Advanced Realty.
Some members left for the other 14 synagogues within the 10-mile radius of the temple.
One of those synagogues, Temple Beth Am, is now home to about 50 percent of Bet Breira’s former members. The synagogue is less than five miles away from where Bet Breira Samu-El Or Olom used to stand. Aklepi now serves as a rabbi there.
“They’re my community, and that’s where I wanted to serve,” she said.
Aklepi said the demographic changes will make it difficult for the fledgling congregation to survive.
Tabachnikoff said he knows it won’t be easy, but he has faith that Dor Chadash will succeed. The current owners, he said, are allowing him to stay in the building under a lease for about another year.
“In a sense we are competing for the same congregants, but what we are offering is quite different,” he said.
Their niche: An everyone-knows-everyone atmosphere with light-hearted themed Shabbats and family friendly activities. There is a religious school and Bennett said the “kids love him.”
“They call him ‘Rabbi Dude,’ ” he said.
Since they began meeting in July, Friday night Shabbats have been well-attended Tabachnikoff said.
And they are expecting hundreds to fill the sanctuary for the high holiday services. Tabachnikoff knows he has big shoes to fill.
“Many people come because of who my father was,” he said. “I don’t want to disappoint them.”