By Larry Gordon
Everywhere you turn, there is another story to be excavated, unearthed, and discovered. So last week, after a few weeks of weather-related delays, we made it down to Florida and our rescheduled meeting with Rabbi Meir Haber of Sunny Isles.
The idea to meet Meir Haber came from our associate and friend Candace Herman. She vacations in Sunny Isles and is a member of the Young Israel of Sunny Isles, which has undertaken to promote the idea of people from the cold or rather frozen environs of the north buying or renting a second home down here.
Sunny Isles is just north of Miami Beach. It is not close enough to walk to dine on Friday night at a Rare Steakhouse Shabbos meal. Otherwise it is just like what I have long felt was the second holiest city in Judaism (after Jerusalem), Miami Beach.
It was inevitable that the crowds clamoring to buy or rent homes overlooking the Atlantic Ocean would eventually move northward of the increasingly densely populated central Miami Beach area. It is just plain nice down here, especially when it is 5 degrees in New York. Prices are more attractive here in Sunny Isles and it is the same Atlantic Ocean, which, as you know, stretches for quite a few thousand miles in this and that direction.
And one of the anchors of the growing permanent as well as part-time Orthodox Jewish community here is the Young Israel of Sunny Isles and the friendly personality of Rabbi Haber. The 36-year-old rabbi has quite a story to tell that led him here a few years ago.
Meir Haber’s parents were from Brooklyn, but his father served for three years as a chaplain at the U.S. Air Force base in Alaska. While there for a short time, he informed his superior offices that he would not be able to continue serving there because being an observant Jewish young couple, they required the use of a mikveh, and obviously there wasn’t any. This was most likely a first in the history of the American military, but the Air Force built a mikveh for the Habers on the base.
The move to Alaska seemed to have been a fateful for one for the senior Rabbi Haber, and that is when he began to consult with the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the challenges he was facing there. Additionally, he and his wife had already been married for a few years and did not have children, and they wanted to ask the Rebbe for a berachah. It was at one of those encounters with the Rebbe in Brooklyn that the Rebbe had some questions of his own about Jewish life on the air base and in whatever Jewish community existed at the time in Anchorage.
At the meeting, the Rebbe inquired of Rabbi Haber about issues that he had not anticipated being asked about. First, the Rebbe asked him whether Jews in prison in Alaska had kosher food available to them, whether they have matzah to eat on Pesach, and whether they have machzorim to pray from on the holidays. Meir Haber says that his father, who had been busy on the Air Force base, had to respond in the negative, at which point the Rebbe looked straight at him and said that he assumed these matters would be appropriately attended to in the future. And they were. Meir Haber was born a year later, after the senior Rabbi Haber was transferred to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.
Retired from the Air Force now, Rabbi Haber senior serves as the Chabad sh’liach in the Golan Heights from his home in the Golan community of Chispin. The Golan as well as bases in California and Alaska are a long way both literally and figuratively from Sunny Isles, Florida. It’s obvious that the young rabbi’s inspiration is his father, who travels and lectures extensively about his experience as a chaplain in the American military.
Meir Haber is animated and enthusiastic about his community of mostly snowbirds. The people I have spoken to who are members of the shul are enamored with and are big fans of the rabbi. Perhaps it is his youth, combined with his worldliness as well as his ability to teach and communicate important ideas in Torah to the community, that continues to draw people down here.
This is an interesting part of Florida. It is not your father’s or grandfather’s Miami Beach. The central location in which to hobnob has shifted from that old once-upon-a-time downtown Jewish ghetto where the Crown, Caribbean, and Saxony hotels were once magnets for winter visitors. That action has kind of moved to several different locations, with Arthur Godfrey Road being one of those unofficial quasi borders. As the population grows, there seem to be communities popping up in enclaves all around southern Florida. And Rabbi Meir Haber and his traditional yet forward way of looking at things seem to fit right in to the continuously growing Orthodox Jewish community in Sunny Isles.
So you see, aside from the mostly fantastic warm weather in Florida, these are some of the rich experiences Rabbi Meir Haber today shares with his growing community. The rabbi studied in Israel at Yeshiva Shaalvim, at Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad as well as Manchester, England, before moving to New York. From there his business brought him down to Florida, where his erudition and Torah scholarship endeared him to the community that made him their rabbi six years ago.
Sunny Isles is a fantastic community with an outstanding shul as its anchor. Next time you are in Florida and want to learn more about Sunny Isles, you are invited to call Rabbi Haber directly at 786-395-6420.
And Now The Weather
While I was in Florida last week, we hit a great spot of weather, with temperatures in the mid-80s most of the time. I returned early Tuesday morning this week after a wild combination of delays due to the winter weather up north. Some have asked me why I bothered returning, considering that we are supposed to get the one-two punch of several snowstorms over a few days.
We met a friend in the airport Monday night who told us that she was afraid she would not be able to get out of Florida because of the snow in New York. “I’ve been down here a month already,” she said. “I have to get out of here and get back home.” We were there for only a week or so, but as I’ve written in the past, though it is a great change of pace, these days I find few things as relaxing as being in my office, scouring my computer screen, and tapping out words like these on my keypad.
I was doing much the same thing down south, but that had to be interspersed with jaunts to restaurants like Harbour Grill, Soho, Tasti Dâ€‘Lite, Pita Hut, Cine Citta, Shemtov’s, and so on. Then there are the shops and street market in South Beach, Bal Harbour, and Sawgrass Mills.
Yes, I knew it was cold and snowing up here in New York, and I didn’t miss those few inches of snow here and there. Miami Beach was mobbed with kids last week, and it was near impossible to get a seat in any of the restaurants without a reservation. If you needed to eat, your best bet was take-out. If you were hungry, that may not have worked out all that well either. If you wanted something as simple as sushi, the wait was sometimes over an hour.
Florida is a great place to live or visit. It is rife with shiurim and minyanim just about everywhere you look. The kosher restaurants easily rival those in New York and Jerusalem. It is indeed great to get away, especially to a place where it is 82 degrees every day. But you can spend only so much time at the pool or on the beach until it’s time to eat again. That notwithstanding, I still would not want to miss any two-foot snowstorm.
Tuesday evening, I was struck by the beauty of the snow-covered branches hanging from the trees all around as I slowly drove down Central Avenue on my way home. Still fresh in my mind was the equally stunning look of the waves crashing gracefully against the shore, with the saltwater skipping and tiptoeing further up the beach as the hours passed and the day wore on.
It is not a war or a battle, just conflicting elements, the warmth in the south versus the cold in the north–a very civilized war at that. My bathing suits and Tâ€‘shirts are now packed away, at least for a little while. The snow shovels and the rock salt are near the side door at the ready. We had some fun in the sun. Bring on the snow. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.