(JTA) — Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz, who opened the doors of his Miami Beach synagogue to waves of Cuban exiles beginning in the early 1960s, died Thursday at his home in Miami Beach. He was 97.
Abramowitz, longtime leader of Temple Menorah, ministered to hundreds of young Jews who arrived in the United States as part of Operation Pedro Pan, a mass exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors from 1969 to 1962.
Cuban exiles continued to call Temple Menorah their spiritual home over the years, earning Abramowitz the title “the father of the Cuban Jewish community.”
“Rabbi Abramowitz was so well known in our Cuban exile community because he tried hard to build bridges between different groups,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told the Miami Herald. “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.”
Abramowitz was born in Jerusalem on Dec. 13, 1919, and arrived in New York in 1928. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Yeshiva University and rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1944, according to the Herald. As a chaplain and first lieutenant in the U.S. Army stationed in Europe, he served Schlachtensee-Templhof, a displaced persons camp in Berlin, where he met his future wife, Rachel, a Holocaust survivor. He was also active in the Bricha, the underground effort that helped Holocaust survivors escape post-World War II Europe to Palestine.
After the army, Abramowitz served as chief emigration officer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Italy. In 1951 he and Rachel moved to Miami, where he would become rabbi at Temple Menorah and serve for 45 years, retiring at 2009 at age 90.
Abramowitz credited an early trip to Cuba to his lifelong interest in the beleaguered island nation and its people.
“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 when he retired.
Abramowitz is survived by his wife Rachel, his children Dahlia Oppenheimer, David Abramowitz and Reena Greenberg, 11 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.