Congregation Etz Chaim (CEC) is one of South Florida’s LGBTQ success stories. On the surface it does not seem that way: In its 49-year history, CEC has had more ups and downs than a roller coaster.
More than once, Synagogue leaders and congregants were ready to give up and close shop. And more than once, Etz Chaim picked itself up, dusted itself off, and started all over again. 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 UnitarianUniversalist Church in Oakland Park for a decade before it moved (2005) to “a home of our own” on Wilton Manors. On June 1, 2011, this “spiritual home for LGBT Jews and our friends” moved to the campus of Temple Beth Torah in Tamarac. CEC moved back to Wilton Manors in 2014 before finally settling down at the Pride Center.
Obviously when it comes to Congregation Etz Chaim, I am not an impartial observer. I have been a member of the congregation since 1976; a member of the Board for most of its existence; and president of the Synagogue from 1989 to 1991 and from 2012 to 2015. I stayed loyal to Etz Chaim at a time when many of its members moved to another friendly synagogue in Broward County; and when it seemed that CEC’s existence might come to an end. Though South Florida has many Jewish temples and organizations that are LGBTQ friendly; Etz Chaim is still its only LGBTQ synagogue (though others are always welcome). That CEC survives at a time when most other queer synagogues have thrown in the towel is an amazing achievement.
For over a decade, Rabbi Noah Kitty led Congregation Etz Chaim. The end of Rabbi Kitty’s tenure last year, along with the departure of some of the Board members, seemed to put an end to CEC. Instead, the congregation elected a new Board led by President Louis Levin. “We had too much to offer to the community and we are not done,” Levin told me at the time. “We have enough in the funds to last at least another year and we have to give it a try.” A year later, Synagogue funds are stable and attendance at Friday night services are as high as they were under Rabbi Kitty.
Reflective of this new spirit, the CEC Board hired as spiritual leader Marcia Weinstein, who described herself as “a Cantorial Soloist, Shaliach Tzibur (service leader), Jewish Educator, and song leader who has spent over a decade leading Shabbat, Festival and High Holiday services while incorporating Jewish music every step of the way.” Weinstein’s belief in “audacious hospitality” and her desire to create a Kehillah Kedoshah (holy community) made her so popular that the Board voted to extend her contract for three more years. For her second High Holy Days season as our service leader Weinstein plans a full slate of services which, like her “musical” Friday night services, will combine traditional Judaism with modern ideas and ideals. Next year, Congregation Etz Chaim turns fifty; and I hope to be around to write about it.
Congregation Etz Chaim holds Friday Night Services at 8 p.m. at the Pride Center Auditorium B, 2038 N. Dixie Hwy, in Wilton Manors. For more information, phone (954) 564-9232 or visit www.EtzChaimFlorida.org.