According to the Bible, the Children of Israel wandered for forty years before they reached their Promised Land. This year, Congregation Etz Chaim turns 40, making it the third-oldest LGBT group in South Florida (The Sunshine Cathedral is 42 and the Stonewall National Museum and Archives is 41).
Like our Biblical ancestors, Cong. Etz Chaim (CEC) has had many homes in its four decade history. Since 1974, CEC has moved its operations from a Lutheran Church on Biscayne Boulevard to the YWCA in downtown Miami (1976); an art studio in North Miami Beach (1977); and a storefront in Aventura (1978) before it finally crossed the border into Broward in 1995. CEC then settled down at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Oakland Park for a decade before it moved (2005) to “a home of our own” in Wilton Manors. On June 1, 2011, this “spiritual home for LGBT Jews and our friends” moved west, to the campus of Temple Beth Torah in Tamarac. (Full disclosure: I am a long-time member of Congregation Etz Chaim; and currently serve as President of the Congregation.)
At the time, the move to Tamarac was thought to be a good idea. The Synagogue was strapped for funds and it could not afford to maintain the Wilton Manors storefront. And we believed that the move to Tamarac would attract congregants from West Broward. Unfortunately we were wrong. Not only did the move to Tamarac fail to attract people from the suburbs but it alienated our base in Wilton Manors, Fort Lauderdale, and Oakland Park. Though the decline in membership was due in part to greater acceptance of LGBT Jews by “mainstream” Reform, Conservative and Reconstruction synagogues, the fact remains that many of our members refused to travel west of the Florida Turnpike in order to attend services. In a sense this reluctance made no sense: after all, suburbanites like me made the trip east, week after week, for Temple services or other activities. But Wilton Manors was our community’s comfort zone, and few wanted to go out of it.
It was only a matter of time before CEC’s Board of Directors, and our Executive Director, Rabbi Noah Kitty, realized that our Synagogue had to move back east; or cease to exist. Like the Jews who were exiled in Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple, Congregation Etz Chaim was “exiled” in Tamarac, away from the gayborhood of Wilton Manors. Happily, Rabbi Kitty contacted the Rev. Tita Calzada of Wilton Manor’s Unity Church, who offered to host CEC. The members approved the move at a congregational meeting in May, the same meeting in which they, in recognition of her services, officially elected Noah Kitty, Rabbi of Congregational Etz Chaim. The Board later met to plan the Temple’s return to Wilton Manors, and scheduled the first service for Friday, July 12.
Congregation Etz Chaim’s return to Wilton Manors was a huge success. Over 80 people, many of them former Synagogue members, attended the first service, conducted by Rabbi Kitty and Cantor Jerry Berkowitz. Vice Mayor Julie Carson, representing the City, joyfully announced her intention to renew her membership, as did other people.
“Etz Chaim is home again,” Carson told a reporter. “Tamarac was just too far for me.” Others saw a possibility for Wilton Manors to expand its outreach to include Wilton Manor’s heterosexual Jews. After all, Etz Chaim was and is Wilton Manors’s only synagogue. In addition to the weekly Sabbath services, the Synagogue leadership plans to take advantage of the Unity Church’s lavish facilities to hold our High Holy Days services there; making it the first time that CEC won’t have to go outside for HHD services since our days at the U-U Church.