You don’t need to look far to find hostility toward Jews in Fort Lauderdale’s history. The attitude of Henry Flagler – the land mogul and railroad builder whose station-stop along the New River breathed life into our once-tiny settlement – said it all. He prohibited land sales and hotel lodgings for Jewish clients.
That didn’t prevent Jews from settling here. The first recorded Jewish resident is Louis Brown, who came in 1910. In 1923, when Moe Katz, founder of the city’s first temple came to town, there were seven families. Raised in Manhattan, Katz found it a “small but exciting town,” especially for someone in real estate. The boom was on and by 1926 there were several hundred Jewish residents.
Finding it arduous to travel for services in Miami or Palm Beach (each city had one temple at the time), Katz organized a group to worship locally. Their very first service took place on the second floor above a restaurant on Las Olas. It was a memorable one, but not for what happened at the service itself. While winds were blustery for those who came out to attend, it was nothing compared to what came through a few hours later. The most devastating hurricane in Fort Lauderdale history (until Andrew) wiped out most of the city.
That second-floor meeting place was blown away, along with most structures in town. Of the town’s 13,000 residents, a whopping 8,000 left.
The real estate boom, already shaky, was now over. And while reconstruction was still in progress, the stock market crashed.
Temple talk was on hold until the early 1930s. Meanwhile, a Hebrew congregation was formed, and classes were held at the Maxwell Arcade. Once a year the American Legion hall was rented for holiday services led by a student rabbi.
Temple plans also suffered because of disputes among the various Jewish sects – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Services were alternated among the groups, sometimes even meeting in the FPL building. When no one from the Orthodox or Conservative groups stood up to build a temple, Katz did.
He and his brother Mack, who owned a dress shop, donated a lot they owned together at South Andrews Avenue and 18th Street to build the city’s first Reform temple.
In 1936, a charter was drawn up for Temple Emanu-El. Jewish architect Theodore Meyer was asked to design the 50-seat synagogue. The temple would cost $15,000.
The next mighty force to hit the project was not bad news but good, in the form of a man named Samuel Lerner. According to an account by the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, Lerner was in town with his father to check on the family’s newest dress shop franchise when they noticed signage for the planned temple.
They stopped by to inquire about the project and to offer help. Lerner then invited Katz, 36, and the architect down to his Miami Beach hotel and began by saying “Kid, you ever built a temple before?” The answer was of course no, and thus began a whole new conversation, the results of which were the following: a new plan for a 150-seat synagogue, an impressive vestibule, a kitchen and dining hall. Now the price tag was $50,000.
Lerner also asked about the lot behind the synagogue site. Katz said that it was owned by an Irishman named P.V. Burns. Lerner pushed Katz to go see him and see if he would sell it. Katz approached Burns, a friend.
Burns said, “If you really need that land, you can have it as a gift.”
“See kid, I haven’t cost you anything yet,” said Lerner to the somewhat dazed Katz. He still was unsure how he’d raise the $50,000. After all, when the project cost was just $15,000, they’d only managed to collect $4,000.
Lerner proceeded to school Katz in the fine art of charitable giving. When one big donor wanted to give $1,000, for example, Katz was delighted, but Lerner was not.
“Just give $100,” Lerner said.
Minutes later the dumbfounded Katz asked why he’d rejected the large sum.
Here’s what you do, said Lerner. Go print up a bunch of cards that say “Honorary Member of Temple Emanu-El.” To each contributor, you send a card along with an invitation to attend the opening. “And each year send them a bill for $50.”
Furthermore, Lerner said, “I’m building you the finest list of contributors in the United States.”
And so, the money was raised, the bigger synagogue built, and the first services were held in September 1937.
The Jewish community in Fort Lauderdale finally had a home, one that held gatherings and services until it was too small to contain the growing congregation. In 1969, they moved to a new location on West Oakland Park Boulevard, where attendance grew into the thousands.
But that first temple would not be forgotten. The Sun-Sentinel covered the 75th anniversary celebration, which hailed the city’s intrepid first congregation.
“Temple Emanu-El provided a home and a haven for Jews who were often not particularly welcome here,” said Rabbi Sheldon Jay Harr of Plantation. “It’s the place of … Jewish pioneers.”
Today the South Florida area – from Miami to Palm Beach – has, at last count, more than 500,000 Jews and 189 synagogues and congregations.