Rabbi Eugene R. Labovitz, a joyfully spiritual man who led Miami Beach’s Temple Ner Tamid for 40 years—and believed in the power of storytelling— died on May 23, and has been buried in New York.
Born in April 1930, he was 82. He lived with his wife, Annette, in Woodmere, on Long Island.
Labovitz, who hailed from Pittsburgh, came to Ner Tamid from a congregation in Houston in 1958, and was the only fulltime rabbi in the history of the temple, at 7902 Carlyle Ave.
Its congregation merged with Temple Moshe of North Miami after Labovitz retired in 1998 and moved to New York. The building is now a Jewish day school.
He held an undergraduate degree from the University of Houston, a master’s from the University of Miami, and a Doctor of Divnity degree from Philathea University in Canada, served as chaplain to Jewish War Veterans Post 723, and as chair of the Jewish Worship Hour on WPLG-Channel 10.
In 1971, he was elected president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. Among his campaigns: abolishing the temporary synagogues that materialized in hotels and apartment buildings just for the High Holy Days.
“We are against undermining the structure of the religious life of the Jewish community,’’ he said.
He also spoke out strongly against intermarriage with non-Jews, which he believed stemmed from the lack of “a distinctive Jewish lifestyle’’ among mainstream American Jews.
He was honored by Israel Bonds in 1967 for “leadership in rallying American Jewish support for Israel during the Six Day War, and in 1978, became the first American rabbi to win the David Ben Gurion Award from ORT—the Organization for Rehabilitation and Training —for his “admirable committment to the ORT ideal of helping young people become self-supporting through vocational, technical or technological education.’’
Known for teaching through stories rather than sermons or lectures, Labovitz delighted in sharing his love of Jewish faith and history with children. He was particularly sensitive to the spiritual lives of teenagers searching for answers during the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s.
“He went to an ashram,’’ recalled Elaine Zane of Hollywood, a longtime Ner Tamid member.
In 1972, the father of four took a controversial stand, condemned by law-enforcement officials and judges, in favor of a federal commission’s report that recommended decriminalizing pot.
“How can you condemn marijuana when some kids on these lighter drugs have found insights to themselves throught their use, and many authorities think there are some positive effects?’’ he asked during a Miami Herald interview.
“I don’t go around screaming that kids should take it,’’ he said. “But because of marijuana, one girl I met came to religion. She saw herself and found things she never realized before. She gave up drugs and became a very observant Jew.’’
He and his wife, Annette, a teacher, co-wrote several books, including A Sacred Trust: Stories of Our Heritage and History, Time for My Soul, and A Touch of Heaven.
The couple appeared at synagogues as The Legendary Maggidim (Storytellers), delighting children with tales real and fanciful about celebratory holidays like Hanukkah and Purim.
“I found I was able to relate to young people better as I got older,’’ he told the Herald in 1978. “The most rewarding part of my rabbinate has been in the past few years when I’ve made a practice of bringing youngsters into my home on weekends to experience the peace of the Sabbath.’’
He also took kids on spiritual retreats to North Carolina.
Labovitz was a close friend of Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach, considered by many to be the 20th Century’s greatest composer of Jewish music. That relationship brought Carlbach’s particular style of lively, Hassidic-inspired musical worship to the Ner Tamid congregation.
The Hassidic movement, begun in 18th Century Eastern Europe, “taught softness, love and holiness, and it is the holy people who are to bring the world together,’’ he told the Herald in 1972.
“He was on a adventure,’’ said Zane, “and he took us with him.’’
The congregation was “tolerant of change and of people who do not believe the same way they do,’’ Labovitz said in a 1978 interview. “They have become more conscious of their own heritage and more identified with their brothers in Israel.’’
The previous year, Labovitz created a bumper sticker as a response to one that Evangelical Christians were putting on their cars, reading: “I Found It.’’
Labovitz’s read: “We Never Lost It.’’
He explained that “After all, Jews have the original finding—the Ten Commandments that were passed on to Moses at Mount Sinai.’’
The stickers proved so popular that the congregation sold them to raise money for scholarships.
In addition to his wife, Labovitz is survived by sons David and Elyahu, and daughters Shiri Slomovic and Naomi Shualy.