Nineteen years ago, when about 40 LGBTQ Jews attended High Holy Day services at Temple Israel of Greater Miami, then-Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn declared the synagogue “a warm and welcoming place” for all people, regardless of their sexual orientations.
Several synagogue members including late Miami attorney Robert Glazier had just created Ru’ach, a gay havurah (Hebrew for “fellowship”). Soon after, Glazier became temple president — eventually succeeded in the position by two lesbians, among others — and dozens of other LGBTQ temple members took on committee and board assignments.
And now, at the start of this year’s High Holy Days and with the recent appointment of Senior Rabbi Amy Morrison, a lesbian, Temple Israel has come full circle: The synagogue’s diverse leadership again wants it known that all are welcome.
“Everyone is just warm and welcoming, whether they’re gay, straight, Jewish or not Jewish,” said Richard Milstein, a well-known Miami attorney who with husband Eric Hankin joined Temple Israel about 16 years ago.
Morrison, 41, came to Temple Israel, South Florida’s oldest Reform synagogue founded in 1922, from Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, a Reform congregation where she served eight years on a team of rabbis. Her specialty there: working with children and younger Jews.
“My portfolio was kindergarten through 12th grade, plus 20s and 30s,” said Morrison, who also advised The Tribe, a group of South Florida millennial Jews who remain unaffiliated with a synagogue.
“The goal was not affiliation to a synagogue. The goal was building communities,” Morrison said. “That was really my congregation, my chance to essentially be the senior rabbi of a group. It was written up the first year in The New York Times — which was a huge, amazing PR thing — and it ended up being 200 to 300 people who came together every year for High Holidays.”
Temple Israel, like many urban congregations, is struggling to increase membership in an era of declining interest among young liberal American Jews.
Synagogue President Dr. Julia Zaias believes Morrison is the perfect person to connect with Temple Israel’s young future leaders.
“I’d like to see us move as seamlessly as possible into the next 100 years, including new generations and reaching them where they are,” said Zaias, a veterinarian and University of Miami research associate professor. “The younger generation clearly doesn’t identify with synagogues or Judaism the same way. It’s one of the nice things about Rabbi Morrison being young, that she has a familiarity with that generation. The rest of us are older.”
Social justice has long been a tenet of Temple Israel’s congregation. From the synagogue website: “Temple Israel’s foundation was built upon folks who were not only forward thinkers, but people who took action.”
Zaias says “the move for increased inclusion and diversity is directly related to social justice.”
“We have a lot of rights but there still is a need to incorporate all the different groups, the accessibility groups and the age groups and so on, so that they can all participate equally. Or at least comfortably,” Zaias said.
Morrison, a single mother raising a 5-year-old son named Ezra, describes herself as “the face of ‘if you wanted to see yourself on the bimah [pulpit].’”
That matters to many younger Jews, she said. “Anyone can be anywhere on their journey, judgment free, at least from my point of view.”
Morrison succeeded Rabbi Tom Heyn, whose five-year contract was not renewed in 2017 by a divided temple board. The new rabbi says she and synagogue leaders are moving forward and hope to make Temple Israel more appealing to more people.
“The synagogue has always been very open to LGBTQ and I think accessibility there is a given,” she says. “Now, there are other groups that need accessibility. We’re limited by our own vision.”
Morrison said Temple Israel has begun “this huge drive toward accessibility — actual, tangible accessibility.”
“I didn’t know this, but synagogues and mosques and churches are exempt to follow Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, so for 98 years, our sanctuary, or bimah, has not been accessible,” Morrison said. “In the last three months, the board and myself raised funds to bring in a wheelchair lift, that’s now already built into our sanctuary.”
Hankin, a teacher at Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH) in Miami’s Design District, said he’d like to go further than simply making the temple’s iconic sanctuary wheelchair accessible.
“I would rather see the bimah come down rather than people having to lift the chair up to the bimah — bringing the pulpit down, closer to the congregation,” he said.
Hankin believes the sanctuary’s old-style layout reflects the “pomp and circumstance” of when Temple Israel completed it in 1928. “What people are like now and what services are like now, it’s a little different.”
Among Morrison’s other goals: projecting Torah readings on a big screen so congregants can easily follow along.
“We’re going to load our prayer books into Kindles so that people can pinch open the text, so that those who are visually challenged will be able to see the text larger. We’re investing in bringing in sign language interpreters who can do services in both Hebrew and English.”
Morrison, who is studying remotely and near completion of a master’s degree at the Davis School of Gerontology at University of Southern California, also would like to see Temple Israel improve its “spiritual accessibility” with added programs for both pre-schoolers and senior citizens, all “based on Jewish values.”
“It’s not how you identify with your Judaism, it’s that you identify Jewishly. I think that’s the future of religion,” said Morrison, who grew up in East Lansing, Michigan. “People around you might not look like you, think like you, pray like you. But at Temple Israel, you’re welcome. And more than welcome, we’re interested in learning what makes you you.”