“The idea of a Lubavitch center springing up here on the island was just surreal,” perhaps as surreal as the island itself, says Kim Barkan, a businessman and father who’s lived here for the last decade. Only minutes away from the busy city streets of downtown Miami, this incredibly beautiful oasis—one of the wealthiest towns in the States—provides an almost other-worldly escape from life on the other side of the Rickenbacker Causeway, where many of the city’s 12,000 residents work.
Once an exclusively waspy community, the island is now home to some 1,000 Jews. But without a single synagogue, JCC, or Jewish school, the drive over the causeway was, wittingly or not, a departure from all things Jewish. What with a paradise-like lifestyle reflected in this island’s perpetual sunshine, some of the country’s most breathtaking beaches, and a never-ending supply of recreational activities on sea and on land, it is little wonder that few people here were actively searching for more.
That didn’t stop a young Chabad-Lubavitch couple living on the other side of the bridge, in Miami from testing the waters of this paradise island. Three years ago, Rabbi Yoel and Rivka Caroline began introducing various Jewish activities to Key Biscayne’s Jewish residents. At first, few people participated in the educational programs they established, but soon enough Chabad’s rented facilities were filling up. Then, on Lag B’Omer, Chabad hosted its first wedding ceremony for Chuck Alter and his wife Andrea who met at a function here. According to Chuck, a previously unaffiliated restaurateur who’s lived on the island for the past 20 years, having a Rabbi on the Key “is a real novelty.” Chabad, says Chuck, provides a “focal point for the Jews living in this small luxury bedroom community, and helps it grow by being so accessible, just next door.”
Slowly but surely activities expanded, attendance grew, and the need for a permanent Chabad residence on the Key was realized. With the generous support of Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein, to whom the Carolines and the local Jewish community are eternally grateful, Chabad of Key Biscayne moved into a home of its own just in time Rosh Hashana 5763.
In the weeks since, 211 Greenwood Drive has made Jewish life a lively reality on the Key. The Alters participate at the Shabbat minyans and dinners, which draw some twenty people regularly and more than 15 women participate at a monthly Jewish Women’s Circle meeting for evenings of discussion and creative activities centered around Jewish themes. The adult education program now includes several weekly group classes and one-on-one learning sessions, as well as a lecture series.
The island’s uniqueness, says Kim Barkan, presents significant challenges to Chabad here. “The age and socioeconomics of the people living here—many are retirees—lends itself to a certain level of contentment,” and is not particularly conducive to religious awakening. But for parents of young children like himself, the need for religious affiliation increases as the children grow, and through its many programs Chabad succeeds to fill the gap, imbuing young children with a love and understanding of Jewish tradition. Andrea’s son Pedro, is one of twenty others who have joined the Torah Kids In Action club, which meets monthly for an afternoon of fun and creativity in a Jewish atmosphere. Other resources for children include a Hebrew school and a Jewish Children’s Library, a project undertaken in memory of the Caroline’s son Sholom Dov Ber, which will soon be open to the public.
The Carolines anticipate at least 200 people at the grand Chanukah menorah lighting, and express confidence that much like Kim, who feels he has embarked on a “steady, positive move upwards,” Key Biscayne’s Jewish community will discover that even in paradise, the Jewish soul yearns to be nurtured.