Local Obituaries

‘Father of the Cuban Jewish community’ Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz dies at 97

Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz at Temple Menorah on Miami Beach on Dec. 18, 2009. The temple celebrated his 90th birthday. He served for 45 years, opening the doors to the Cuban Jewish community.
Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz at Temple Menorah on Miami Beach on Dec. 18, 2009. The temple celebrated his 90th birthday. He served for 45 years, opening the doors to the Cuban Jewish community. For the Miami Herald

To his congregation, he was known as “Sunshine,” for his positive energy and spirit. To the community at large, Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz was “the father of the Cuban Jewish community.”

Abramowitz, who died Thursday, at his home in Miami Beach at 97, opened the doors to the synagogue he led, Temple Menorah in Miami Beach, to hundreds of Cuban Jewish youth who came to the United States as part of Operation Pedro Pan from 1960 to 1962. Over the years, he ministered to countless members of the community who were drawn to the warm, welcoming rabbi.

“Rabbi Abramowitz was so well known in our Cuban exile community because he tried hard to build bridges between different groups,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-South Florida. “He was especially helpful in the tough early years when so many Cuban refugees were coming over and we were so unfamiliar with how to find a job, get help for the elderly, or feed young children. The faith community, as always, really helped so many Cuban refugees. And Rabbi Abramowitz set the tone for others like him to emulate his kindness. A real mensch.”

I went into labor with my oldest son on Yom Kippur. Almost every hour my father would ask my husband for updates on the progression of my labor. He was so excited about becoming a grandparent that he wanted the entire congregation to share each bit of news. My son’s birth became a communal event and people still remember that special Yom Kippur.

Dahlia Oppenheimer, Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz’s daughter.

Years later, Regina Behar, married to a Cuban-born husband, saw Abramowitz perform a naming ceremony for their two granddaughters, Alexandra and Alison.

“There were four big rabbis in Miami at the time with the [Greater Miami Jewish] Federation and he was the one that was so comical, so fun-loving,” Behar said. “He had an amazing, positive energy.”

Born in the old city of Jerusalem on Dec. 13, 1919, Abramowitz arrived in New York in 1928. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Yeshiva University in 1941 and rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1944. But when he heard about displaced survivors from World War II he immediately enlisted in the Army as a chaplain and first lieutenant, stationed in Europe. At Schlachtensee-Templhof, a displaced persons camp in Berlin, he met his future wife, Rachel, a Holocaust survivor.

After they wed, Abramowitz continued his efforts to help thousands of Holocaust survivors rebuild their lives. He trained many to become teachers and established a school and summer camp for more than 2,500 children in Europe. He was also active in the Bricha, the underground effort that helped Holocaust survivors escape post–World War II Europe to Palestine.

After his discharge, Abramowitz became the chief emigration officer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, based in Italy, a post he held for three years. In 1951, Abramowitz and his wife moved to Miami Beach, where he became rabbi at Temple Menorah, serving for 45 years. After his retirement, he created the Jewish Leadership Institute, a program that takes college students to Israel to help them develop strong Jewish identities.

In the 1970s one of the political parties had its nominating convention in Miami Beach. There had been riots at previous conventions and protesters were planning demonstrations here. My father offered his synagogue for them to stay in and they slept on the floor. My father and mother brought them meals. That calmed everything down.

David Abramowitz, Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz’s son.

But a vacation, a rarity for Abramowitz, led to the trait so many cherish about him. A few years after moving to the Beach, the couple visited Cuba. There, Abramowitz began lifelong relationships with the Cuban-Jewish community.

“I don’t know who took me to Cuba because I never took a vacation, but it was probably God,” Abramowitz told the Miami Herald in 2009, upon his retirement at age 90. He wrote the books “Sacred Sword” in 1992 about the Spanish Inquisition and, in 2005, “Unsafe Haven,” a fictional account of post-Holocaust life based on his experiences.

“While I wasn’t his congregant, I covered Miami Beach’s Jewish community for years and his story was always one of the most impactful,” said Norma Orovitz, who, in 1989, was elected the first female president of Temple Israel of Greater Miami. “So many of my Cuban friends and neighbors found a spiritual home with Rabbi and Rachel when he opened the doors to his otherwise ‘Anglo’ synagogue. I was so taken with rabbi that I sought and secured a spot in his leadership program for one of my granddaughters. She came home from Israel overwhelmed that a 90-year-old-plus rabbi could be such an influence on her.”

Abramowitz is survived by his wife Rachel, his children Dahlia Oppenheimer, David Abramowitz, and Reena Greenberg, 11 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. Donations can be made to the Jewish Leadership Institute, 925 Arthur Godfrey Road, Suite 101, Miami Beach, Florida, 33140.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen