Spanish Services Show New Face Of Florida Shuls

By Julie Kay

Published October 17, 2003, issue of October 17, 2003.
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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — At the recent High Holy Day services at Temple Sinai, the usual mixture of Hebrew and English echoed throughout the Conservative synagogue’s sanctuary. But, for a portion of the service, a new language was added to the mix: Spanish.

Temple Sinai is one of a growing number of South Florida synagogues responding to the recent influx of Spanish-speaking — mostly South American — members by incorporating Spanish readings into the regular services.

“We felt there were new and additional members who are Spanish,” said Temple Sinai’s executive director, Harvey Brown. “We’ll wait and see if we get a positive reaction to the services before deciding whether to have more.”

At Temple Sinai’s High Holy Day services, Spanish-language handouts with two responsive prayers were distributed. During the services, a guest rabbi read the prayers aloud. It was the first time Spanish prayers were conducted at the synagogue.

But, as at other area synagogues, the addition of Spanish has been controversial. At Temple Sinai, some members — including some Spanish-speakers — do not care for the Spanish prayers.

“It makes me feel awkward,” said Lorena Lechter, a member of the synagogue who moved here from Costa Rica 20 years ago. “It made me feel more excluded — like they were pointing the finger at us. Why is this necessary in an English-speaking country?”

Among non-Spanish-speaking members, many approved of the synagogue’s attempt to reach out to other groups. “It was wonderful to include more people so they could appreciate the meaning of the prayers,” said synagogue member Fred Hochsztein.

Others, however, grumbled that English, not Spanish, should be spoken in the United States — a hot-button issue in South Florida, where some businesses will not hire workers who do not speak Spanish. “I heard the comment, ‘Why are we not doing it in French for the French Canadians?’” Hochsztein said.

Before 1992, the vast majority of South Florida’s Spanish-speaking Jews lived in Miami-Dade County; most were Cuban (or Jewbans, as they call themselves). They came to Miami in the late 1950s, with thousands of other Cubans, after Fidel Castro seized power.

After Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, thousands of displaced Miamians looked for housing in neighboring Broward County, particularly southern Broward, including many Latin American Jews.

The area’s Spanish-speaking Jewish population has swelled in recent years with the wave of immigrants from South America moving to Florida and the rest of the United States fleeing dismal economies and political unrest in Argentina, Colombia and other countries.

Hundreds of South American Jews have settled in Miami-Dade in the last two years. Heavily Jewish Hollywood, Broward County’s second-largest city with 125,000 residents, has also attracted significant numbers of Spanish-speaking Jews. Pembroke Pines, a southwestern Broward suburb that is becoming heavily Hispanic, is also popular with Jewish immigrants.

Miami’s Cuban-American congregation, Temple Beth Shmuel, which opened in 1960, last year hired its first Latin American — and Spanish-fluent — rabbi. Hector Epelbaum, an Argentinean native, was hired in the hope that he could reach out to younger Latin American families and revive the Conservative congregation’s declining membership. He started the synagogue’s first Spanish services, held Friday nights, for its 500 member families.

Other Miami synagogues that hold Spanish services include the Sephardic synagogue Temple Moses; Temple Menorah, a Conservative synagogue in Miami Beach; and Torat Moshe in Miami Beach, attended by Jews whose ancestors fled Turkey for Cuba.

Spanish services are something brand new in neighboring Broward County, though, and may take some getting used to for the thousands of second- and third-generation American Jews who have lived and worshipped in Broward for decades.

The Hollywood Community Synagogue, run by Chabad-Lubavitch, recently added Spanish services. A van outside the adjacent houses where services are held bears a sign with the words, “Yom Kippur en español.”

At Temple Sinai about 10% of the synagogue’s 475 member families are Latin American. However, the percentage of Latin American children in the synagogue’s day school is much higher.

The move to incorporate Spanish readings into the traditional services was the idea of a rabbi who recently relocated from South America and does not have a pulpit. He suggested that Spanish prayers would make the skyrocketing number of Latin American Jews feel more welcome during the High Holy Days.

And for some congregants, they had exactly the intended effect.

“I thought it was nice,” said Jack Farji, an émigré from Colombia and member of the synagogue for seven years. “It made me feel a little more at home.”

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