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Pioneer Of Orthodox Jewish Life in Surfside Shares How Community Has Evolved Over The Decades

 Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of Surfside's The Shul walks past the rubble of the Champlain Towers South on July 6, 2021.
Verónica Zaragovia
Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of Surfside's The Shul walks past the rubble of the Champlain Towers South on July 6, 2021.

A growing Orthodox synagogue, the Shul Jewish Community Center, sits just at the line between Surfside and Bal Harbour, and is part of a community supporting each other and their neighbors during the Champlain Towers catastrophe.

The Shul helped spark religious Jewish life in the area, after its founder began leading prayers in the early 1980s. Rabbi Sholom Lipskar remembers that Jews were not welcomed when he first got to town, and now it's one of five synagogues in eight blocks in Surfside. Rabbi Lipskar spoke with WLRN’s Veronica Zaragovia.

WLRN: Rabbi, can you tell us about the Jewish community of this area? What is it like for people who don't get to come here much?

RABBI SHOLOM LIPSKAR: Once ... there was a house in Surfside where people would meet for a minyan on Saturdays, but otherwise there was no Jewish community to speak of. There was a non-Jewish community, a very assimilated Jewish community. In fact, when I first came here, my welcome was, ‘Who asked you to come? Why don’t you go back where you came from?” Literally. It was not such a great welcome from a lot of people, but it took a very short while until they realized that Jewishness is a meaningful, warm way of life.

And slowly people started to participate. And we started with a very elementary level. We had to have everything in English because people didn't know how to read Hebrew and they didn't know how to pray. And we had to put together a minyan. And one of the great things for a minyan was the fact that Jewish people love having a kiddush. So Saturday we had a great kiddush and slowly people started getting more involved.

Remember our first minyans during the weekdays, there was only two of us every morning, but we were there, two of us, that's all. There was myself and one other person in the basement of a hotel. And then there were three of us. And then we started our classes and slowly people told people that it's interesting. They started coming, participating, and we started having Shabbos in our home for Shabbat. We didn't live here, but we started making Shabbat here. And when we started making Shabbat together, it was for at least four or five years that every Shabbat we had people around our table and it started with two people around a table, three people around a table.

Finally, every Shabbat, we had like 20, 30, 40, 50 people around our table and it became like a happening place. A lot of young people started moving in. A lot of single people started seeing it and recognizing that there's something about this way of life that means something positive. It wasn't just being Jewish because of culture, or because you had to do something. It was a way of life that worked. It has had a history, it had a depth, it had a philosophical system to it. It was a really powerful way. And the language that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had imbued in us was a language that was extremely advanced in terms of the levels of knowledge of the period, because even people who were very scientific and so forth, Jewishness fit into that pattern very well and people who were very modern, Jewishness fit into that pattern very well.

There was no judgment. ... We didn't say I got to dress one way or just another way. We never asked questions where you come from, what's, you know, why don't you dress a different. ... Everything was accepted and if you were Jewish, you had a Jewish soul. You're welcome. Pretty soon, many of these young families — they met each other and they married each other and all these families moved into the community. It was an exponential kind of a growth and pretty soon it required to have other kinds of services. So once we built our school, we had a mikvah, we had children's programs, we had adult programs, we had a preschool and restaurants opened up. We have the finest kosher restaurants in America.

And today, for example, even in the midst of this pandemic and the midst of this horrific calamity that's taken place, we have no room in the shul. We're building a big extension right now, thank God, it has outgrown its facility. There's over 300 kids in our daycare. And that's another very important factor, is people need to grow. They need to learn. They can't remain stagnant. And so when you're constantly having classes like we have, like a fully accredited college, we have like 40 classes a week and we have children's classes, classes for all ages and the classes and all languages. We have our regular schedule. Then we have a Sephardic synagogue under the same roof. And Jewishness has become really, instead of a religion, it's become a way of life.

WLRN: Jews weren't welcome in Bal Harbor when you first moved there. Can you describe how that's changed?

RABBI SHOLOM LIPSKAR: It's so incredible how much it's changed. You can't believe, because when we first came here, my son would go down to the water to sit and then he came home one day. He was 8 years old. He says, “Daddy,” he says, “I don't understand.” He says, “The man who's in charge of the waterfront said I can't be here.” I said, “Why?” He says, “Because you're Jewish.” He didn't understand. An 8-year-old kid. ... Or you have eggs thrown at your house. We really felt that we got to make a difference here and it's now totally transformed. You know why? Because like Begin said, you could break my leg, but you can't bend my knee.

WLRN: Tell us about the aspects of Judaism that mandate helping during hardships and bringing people in when they don't have family.

RABBI SHOLOM LIPSKAR: Number one, it's just a great community because, you know, when you have a community where most — a lot of the people have come back to their Jewishness — there's a warmth that they want to share it. So they already accustomed themselves to such kindness. And right now, for example, every Sabbath, we used to have a Shabbat in our house every week, now in every single house on Shabbat there are guests, there's no such thing as not having a guest for Shabbat. It's normal. In America. If you want to bring a guest to your house for a dinner, you have to invite them a week in advance or two weeks in advance. Here, you invite them Friday night to come for dinner. And it's not just like a very up neighborhood. It's a very integrated neighborhood and people really feel like a community. ... On Shabbat, our shul’s like that place, everybody comes to shul just to hang out. In fact, they don't leave after that prayer. In our shul, they hang out at two o'clock. You know, you come to school every Shabbat, you'll see 100 carriages and scooters and there's as many women as men in shul, which is really very highly unusual. So it created the community. So in good times that's great. And in challenging times, it's also very helpful to have this kind of integration because the kindness that has extended from the community is the only one thing that has been helpful in this case with all the people that we're dealing with.
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Verónica Zaragovia