Rabbi Herbert Baumgard is a celebrity at Temple Beth Am in Kendall.
When Baumgard sat in the lobby on a recent Thursday afternoon, nearly every passer-by stopped to say hello to him, some gave him a handshake or a wave, but a majority gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“In this congregation we kiss instead of saying hello,” said Baumgard following the first of many kisses he’d receive that afternoon.
Baumgard is a founder of Temple Beth Am, one of the oldest and largest Reform synagogues in the Miami-Dade County. The temple is marking its 60th anniversary with a gala on Saturday where a book about its legacy, Reflections – Celebrating 60 Years of Temple & 45 Years of the Day School, is set to be released.
The book goes over the temple’s rich history and includes stories and photographs of the people helped establish the congregation, and grow it to what it is today.
“I think there is nothing more beautiful than having the opportunity to share the Temple Beth Am story, and the impact it has made in the South Florida community for the past 60 years,” said Adrian Dubow, president of Temple Beth Am. “It’s our spiritual home away from home, it’s a place of comfort. It’s a place where many of us have celebrated the highest of highs and lowest of lows.”
One of the founding temple members is Molle Grad, who says she still marvels at how Beth Am, which started with a few hundred members, has grown to what it is today.
“It started with one simple building,” said Grad, 82. “I pinch myself that this grew from some 200 families to what it is today.”
Thousands of families attend services at the temple, have their children enrolled in their day school, and other programs these days, but in 1955 it was a few hundred families that made up what is now known as Temple Beth Am at 5950 Kendall Dr.
In the 1950s, the southern end of Miami-Dade County attracted Jewish families. Many gathered together to establish a community center and provide a Jewish education for their children.
They eventually formed the South Dade Jewish Center in 1955.
At this time, Baumgard was sent to Miami by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism, and told he had to work part-time as a rabbi at a local Reform congregation.
“My wife made the choice,” he said about coming to Temple Beth Am, where he later became a full-time rabbi. “She said this is a nice place to raise children. So that’s how I got here.”
Baumgard’s arrival coincided with the beginning of the congregation. The group would meet at local churches, private homes and public spaces, including libraries.
At one point, Friday services were held in an empty classroom at the University of Miami. When service times would clash clashed with Hurricane football games at the Orange Bowl, a solution was found.
“We designed two services — one for the people who didn’t go to the game, and one for those who went to the game,” he said, adding that they chartered buses to and from the stadium to accommodate the Hurricane fans. “They came, got on the bus, went to the game, and came back and were part of the service.”
Eventually, several families came together to buy a plot of farmland off Kendall Drive where the temple now sits and the South Dade Jewish Center changed its name to Temple Beth Am.
It was under Baumgard’s direction that the first school building was completed, and the pre-school and religious school classes were established.
The temple has grown since its inception, adding new buildings and features. The core foundation of the temple – to create a sense of community and a welcoming place of worship in the area — has remained.
“We are the same, our mission has been the same for 60 years,” said Dubow, who read the temple’s mission statement: “Temple Beth Am embraces Jewish life through lifelong learning, spiritual growth and community engagement.”
Like Dubow, Grad is looking forward to Saturday’s gala, and seeing the families who like her, help establish the temple.
“I am hoping the pioneers will be there,” she said. “It’ll be interesting, the blending of the generations.”
To buy the book
Temple Beth Am’s 60th anniversary gala is sold out. Those who wish to purchase a copy of Reflections – Celebrating 60 Years of Temple & 45 Years of the Day School, can do so at tbam.org/book. Cost: $60.