In its 37 year history, Congregation Etz Chaim has had many homes. 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. Etz Chaim then settled down at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Oakland Park for a decade before it moved (2005) to “a home of its own” in Wilton Manors. On June 1, this “spiritual home for LGBT Jews and their friends” moved west, to the campus of Temple Beth Torah, a Conservative shul located at 5700 N.W 94 Avenue, in Tamarac.
“[We have a] history of relocating to better serve our community. The recent economy has affected us, as it has most religious institutions, in that we have had a reduction in membership and a reduction in the amount members were able to give,” said Rabbi Noah Kitty, Executive Director of Congregation Etz Chaim. “In our commitment to be fiscally responsible, we knew we had to create a different model for ourselves than we had been practicing for the past seven years in Wilton Manors.”
Located in Wilton Manors, Congregation Etz Chaim was at the center of South Florida's LGBT community. However, as Rabbi Kitty says, “community does not stop at the border of a city and the same is true with our Congregation. It is also true that LGBT folk live in many surrounding areas, and we understand our move as less away from the center, than a move towards an underserved area. As pioneers and advocates, by moving to TBT we can help bridge the gap between gay and straight that still exists in society.
Kitty continued: “In the Jewish world, our move is breaking new ground; this is the first time in history that a primarily LGBT synagogue has been welcomed under the roof of a mainstream Conservative synagogue. We like to think of it as one more step towards equality in our LGBT lives.”
“The kind people at TBT have been very welcoming and warm,” said CEC President Daniela Mitrovic. “Although we're still kind of getting to know each other, everything is working out well. Sometimes, members of TBT even attend our services because they are so different from a traditional Conservative service.”
Now in its new home, Kitty concludes, Etz Chaim’s “Shabbat services are unique and beautiful, just like our community. We welcome everyone, regardless of their gender expression or sexual identity, and are committed to creating a warm and enriching spiritual experience for everyone who comes through our door.”
“It so happened that in the past few years we had been gently pursued by local congregations who were interested in bringing us into their communities. They saw what we always understood as our value to the greater community? that we represented a vibrant, interesting, and compelling population that was able to overcome a history of being shunted to the outskirts and evolve into a dynamic and persistent pool of members who are committed to their community.”
Temple Beth Torah, Kitty continues, “offered a unique situation that afforded us a wonderfully supportive relationship. Due to their affiliation as a Conservative synagogue there would not be any question that we were two separate communities. This actually was the defining motivation for us to choose to move to their campus. Since we operate with a liberal Jewish theology, our ritual practices are not that different from Reform synagogues. Had we moved to a Reform synagogue, we could easily be assimilated into a community that wished us well as they swallowed us up. We were determined to maintain our congregational as well as corporate identity and distinctiveness.”
Etz Chaim holds its Friday night services at 8 p.m. at Temple Beth Torah’s chapel. There is no conflict here since TBT services begin at 6:30 p.m. and end right before CEC services begin. However, according to CEC President Daniela Mitrovic, “we did have to make a few changes to some of our Friday night practices, due to their interpretation of Jewish law. We light the Shabbat candles according to the traditional lighting times, we only bring in foods with particular kosher seals, and we refrain from writing name tags for folks who are new to our services.”
“The turnout has been great so far and it has been heartwarming to watch the room fill up on Shabbat,” Mitrovic said. “We have members who have been with us for years and we have more and more new faces filling up the room with each service. Our members seem to really appreciate being in such a beautiful synagogue setting, as the traditional environment provides a serenity and comfort that encourages a spiritual attitude.” Mitrovic anticipates that Etz Chaim’s Board and committee meetings will be held at TBT. In addition, CEC has been invited to hold its social and educational events there as well. “We believe that both our members and the community at large will be very impressed with the beauty and comfort of the building, in addition to the graciousness of our hosts,” she concludes.
In previous years Cong. Etz Chaim held its High Holy Day services at Temple Bat Yam, which had an empty building since they held their holiday services at the Parker Playhouse. However, according to Rabbi Kitty, “their building is not available this year. We are very pleased to accept the kind invitation of the wonderful folks at the Sunshine Cathedral, who offered us the use of their chapel for our High Holy Days services. The fact that the chapel has no religious adornment, has plenty of parking, and is centrally located, makes it a good choice for us. We also appreciate the opportunity to work with the wonderful folks of the Sunshine Cathedral, who have been very supportive of the LGBT community and very accomplished in interfaith activities.”
For more information visit etzchaimflorida.org.