The Jewish communities of Surfside, Bal Harbour and the surrounding areas will soon have more educational opportunities for their children, places for prayer and festive social gatherings.
The Shul of Bal Harbour, the diverse and thriving Orthodox synagogue/social center at 9540 Collins Ave., will soon double its size with a major expansion of its building facilities. The shul will hold a groundbreaking ceremony dinner on the evening of Feb. 4 to celebrate the official beginning of the new construction.
The shul, which already occupies a 34,000-square-foot structure, will expand north on adjacent land the Chabad-Lubavitch-inspired synagogue has owned since the early 1990s. This land will eventually include approximately 40,000 square feet of new buildings not including on-site parking facilities. “We’ve grown to the point where we just do not have enough space for our programs,” said Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar, the founder and spiritual leader.
He said the building project should cost about $20 million, including upgrades being made to the existing facility. According to architect and shul member Jaime Schapiro, actual construction will begin in approximately three or four months and should be completed in two to two-and-a-half years.
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The congregation has been at this site since 1987. Their current building is colonnaded and has an ancient Jerusalem sandstone design; the new construction will be seamlessly integrated into the existing structure.
The most impressive or noticeable part of the new wing of the shul will be the all-glass walls in the social hall, which will run about 40 feet high and have a glass ceiling. “It’s basically a glass box,” Schapiro said. “It will have a skyline that is very unique, if you compare it to any event place in Miami or Miami Beach.”
This social hall will be used for weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, parties and other special events. It will accommodate 600 to 700 people and include a commercial-grade kitchen.
A new three-story building just to the north of the social hall will be used primarily for youth/educational facilities and classroom space, including more space for their very popular Child Enrichment Center. “Our early childhood program is basically busting at the seams,” shul President Mitch Feldman said. There is a list of around 40 children who want to get in to the preschool. The rooftop of this building will have a basketball court, also space for a sukkah holiday structure.
Feldman has been a shul member for 19 years and president for three. He said he grew up in a more liberal Jewish home but felt very comfortable about joining this Orthodox synagogue. “Our shul embraces all different types of Jews,” he said.
One group that the shul has been embracing more is the Sephardim, or Jews from Middle Eastern heritage. Sephardim have different liturgy and religious practices, and the new buildings will allow space to open up for sanctuaries specifically designed for them.
“The Sephardic population in South Florida is clearly growing. We have so many people who have left South America, and now Europe, who are adding to our membership. Sephardic Jews from France and from other European cities are moving to America because of an increase in anti-Semitism in their cities, and they want to live freely as Jews in a democratic society,” wrote Maurice Egozi in an email to the Miami Herald. Egozi has been a shul member for eight years and sits on their building committee. He was born in Cuba; his grandparents were Sephardic Jews from Turkey.
In 2009, Newsweek magazine included the shul in the list of America’s 25 most vibrant Jewish congregations. But Lipskar said that when he first moved to South Florida in the late 1960s, there were fewer Jews in the area. When he began his Bal Harbour neighborhood congregation in 1981, there was a lot of blatant anti-Semitism, he said.
“In 1981, we were not the most welcome guys on the block,” he said. “This community was not used to a Jewish presence.” He said real-estate agents would not deal with him, eggs were thrown at his house, his son was told that he could not play in a certain area and he heard anti-Semitic remarks.
In 1987, the shul congregation bought the land at 9540 Collins Ave., where they are headquartered today, actually in the city of Surfside. Before that, they met and held services at various neighborhood spots, including nearby hotels. “We were kind of wandering Jews,” Lipskar said.
The rabbi said he remembers standing on Collins Avenue or walking through hotel lobbies asking passersby if they were Jewish and would like to join in a minyan, a traditional daily prayer service that requires 10 men. Today, the Shul of Bal Harbor boasts over nine minyanim a day.
Lipskar estimates that the shul has 700 family memberships representing about 3,000 people. According to the shul website, they have over 78 programs, including adult education, programming for Latin-American Jewry, Holocaust survivors and more.
“On a Saturday, you could have over a thousand people come through here, between all the minyanim and all the programs and the children,” Lipskar said with pride.