By the time Herbert Baumgard retired as the founding rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest in 1987, the congregation had grown from 55 families who met at a Baptist church to 1,700 families sharing a 14½-acre campus on Kendall Drive — the largest Reform congregation in the Southeast.
Baumgard, who still came into the office once a week, died Friday in Miami. He was 95 and suffered from congestive heart failure. He had just finished writing a book about his experiences as a rabbi.
“Whenever he came around the office, everybody was so happy to see him,” said Jeremy Barras, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am. “It was like a legendary person walking in.”
In many ways, Baumgard was a legend in his community. He came to Miami in 1955 with his wife, Selma, and their three small children to head the South Florida Federation of Reform Synagogues, which then had an office in the Congress Building downtown. As part of his duties, he was to serve as a part-time rabbi for the South Dade Jewish Center.
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The fledgling congregation eventually bought farmland off Kendall Drive, where the temple now sits, and changed its name to Beth Am. At his retirement, Baumgard remembered the area as “all swampland” surrounded by a smattering of houses and mango groves. But fed by young Jewish families moving into Kendall, the congregation grew quickly with Baumgard as its religious leader and Selma as the choir director. (Selma died in February 2012.)
“He had extraordinary foresight,” recalled Mitchell Chefitz, who served as associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am for five years beginning in 1975. “When he thought of building a day school, it was rare for a Reform congregation to have one, but he knew what he wanted. He knew what was important.”
In addition to the day school, Baumgard also pushed for a gym and the temple launched a basketball league, which continues to be an institution in youth sports.
Jim Simon, another former associate rabbi, called Baumgard a visionary. “He could see what others wouldn’t or couldn’t. He was a person of incredible vision. He always had a clear sense of what a synagogue had to do to secure its future.”
He excelled at managing people. “He always let others shine,” Simon added. “He picked the right people and let them do their thing. As an associate he always treated you as an equal partner. He always said, ‘If you succeed, we all succeed.’ That’s just the way he was.”
Born in Norfolk, Virginia, he served as a chaplain’s assistant during World War II, an experience that convinced him he should be a rabbi. Once discharged from the service, he headed for the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1950. An expert on Jewish prophets and author of several books, he later would be regarded as one of the leading interpreters of Liberal Judaism.
In Miami, he became involved with the nascent civil rights struggle, marching arm-in-arm through Miami streets with the late Rev. Theodore Gibson and Rev. Edward T. Graham. “I never thought about it first. Getting involved was something I had to do,” he told a reporter years later.
Baumgard served for 14 years on the county’s Community Relations Board, including a stint as its president. In May 1985 he was among a group of Reform Jews who joined the NAACP to picket the Justice Building in Washington, D.C., over the department’s lawsuit, which overturned hiring percentages for blacks and women in Indianapolis. Later that same year he became president of the Synagogue Council of America. And in 2015 he was among three local religious leaders honored at the annual Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews Humanitarian Awards.
Despite his extensive community activities, son Jonathan said he always found time to spend with family. “He was very organized and very hard working,” he added. “He got things done and I think all of us kids learned that from him.”
In addition to Jonathan and his wife, Wendy, the rabbi is survived by two other children, Shira (Fred) Garvett, and Daniel (Lori) Baumgard; grandchildren Jason Baumgard, Dara (Chris) Mosquera, Jeremy Garvett, Ari Garvett, Josh Baumgard and Michelle Baumgard; and by great-grandsons Nathan and Noah Mosquera. He also is survived by his sisters, Loyce (Jerry) Robinson and Rity Margulies. Services will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at Temple Beth Am, 5950 SW 88th St.