In the days following the condominium collapse in Surfside, Fla., the world has watched as the city’s Jewish community united to assist and console their friends, neighbors and all of the families and individuals directly impacted by the tragedy.

Here are some things to know about this indomitable, diverse and united beachside Jewish community nestled on the northern tip of Miami Beach:

1. Jews Weren’t Always Welcome, Yet Jewish Life Flourishes

There was a time when Jewish life was virtually nonexistent in Surfside and neighboring Bal Harbour. In fact, deeds to homes in Bal Harbour specified that Jews could not buy there. Nevertheless, in 1981, at the direction of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, Rabbi Sholom and Chani Lipskar founded The Shul of Bal Harbour.

After renting for some time, they soon realized they needed to buy, and asked the Rebbe for advice. Chani Lipskar recalled the Rebbe’s response in an interview with “‘When you change the place you live, you change your mazal (fortune).’ He told us we should always be joyous. He understood that it was a restricted area [for Jews and other minorities], and he gave us a blessing to get in there.”

And indeed, the Lipskars would go on to drastically change the place they now called home.

Rabbi Shalom and Chani Lipskar
Rabbi Shalom and Chani Lipskar

2. It Has Seen Exponential Growth and Become a Welcoming Community

The Shul has grown from its humble beginnings in an apartment to a storefront to a $10 million building on Collins Avenue—Miami Beach’s main coastal artery—and 95th Street—right near where Bal Harbour and Surfside meet, around the corner from the Bal Harbour Shops—a world-famous exclusive mall. The Shul is in the process of completing a $20 million addition to accommodate the ever-expanding Jewish community that now makes up more than 40 percent of the population of the 33154 ZIP code, which encompasses Surfside and Bal Harbour.

Today, high-rise condo complexes and hotels alike are constructed with the kosher and Shabbat observance needs of Jewish residents and guests in mind. Around the corner from The Shul, dozens of kosher restaurants and shops line Harding Avenue.

Jewish education is thriving in Surfside. Some 80 unique programs—geared towards people of every age and stage—are offered, and local philanthropists ensure that Jewish communal life is available to all, regardless of their financial situation.

Local children enjoy a world-class education at The Shul Child Enrichment Center—a state-of-the-art Montessori-style preschool—and at The Shul’s Hebrew school, and Bar and Bat Mitzvah clubs. Adults join the Bal Harbour Kollel—a yeshivah for advanced adult students—or the College of Jewish Studies, which offers rabbinic ordination. The Shul hosts an annual International Torah and Science Conference that attracts academic and professionals from across the spectrum of the sciences.

In addition to the more than 700 member families, which include several thousand individuals, and the many thousands who live in the area and drop by periodically, The Shul maintains a list of an additional 1,000 “unaffiliated” families in the 33154 ZIP code, with whom they are in regular contact.

The Shul has designated “block emissaries” who are lay members with the responsibility of looking after the spiritual and material needs of all the Jewish residents on their street, especially those who are “unaffiliated” and not connected to a congregation.

The area’s transformation from spiritual desert to model Jewish community is due to the Lipskars’ dedication and the Rebbe’s far-reaching vision. The Lipskars didn’t just build a synagogue but a community, which has grown to include more than a dozen formal synagogues and organized gathering points for prayers, sometimes in someone’s apartment. When the local Young Israel synagogue honored the Lipskars in 2011 for their years of tireless leadership they wrote: “The Lipskars, in founding The Shul, have paved the way for other synagogues like the Young Israel to be able to have a home in this community.”

While the area is one of the most exclusive in the country, The Shul is a warm and welcoming place to all—50 percent of participants in their programs are not members—and has flipped the culture from one that kept certain people out of the area to one that welcomes everyone.

The shul's sancutary is attended by families from many differerent Jewish backgrounds.
The shul's sancutary is attended by families from many differerent Jewish backgrounds.

3. The Shul Caters to a Diverse Jewish Community

As is the case at all Chabad-Lubavitch centers, The Shul welcomes worshippers who hail from diverse backgrounds. Among the many who call it home are Modern Orthodox Jews, Chabad Chassidim, Latin American Jews, Jews who identify with various denominations and those who don’t affiliate at all. The Shul hosts an array of prayer services catering to its many different constituencies, including a beginner’s service and a separate Sephardic one.

More than 80 Torah classes and programs take place at the Shul each week in a number of languages, including Hebrew, English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. These include courses on Chassidut, Talmud, Maimonides, the weekly Parshah and daily Tanya.

There’s a mikvah, a Hebrew School—which more than 150 students attend— , a Gan Israel day camp, a sisterhood and a chevra kadishaburial society. Not for naught has The Shul become the organic epicenter of the Jewish community, and one of the centers of activity in Surfside following the collapse of Champlain Towers.

Surfside is home to the Aleph Institute, the leading Jewish organization caring for the incarcerated, Jews in the military and their families.
Surfside is home to the Aleph Institute, the leading Jewish organization caring for the incarcerated, Jews in the military and their families.

4. It’s the Home of the Aleph Institute’s Headquarters

Surfside is home to the Aleph Institute, the leading Jewish organization caring for the incarcerated, Jews in the military and their families. Founded in 1981 by the Lipskars at the direction of the Rebbe, Aleph’s critical efforts towards enacting criminal justice reform and making the criminal justice system in the United States more just and rehabilitative have led to high praise from jurists and elected officials alike.

They send Jewish holiday supplies to Afghanistan and to the nuclear aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz; sets of the Four Species for Sukkot to Iraq and menorahs to Kuwait. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, they found innovative ways to advocate for prisoners despite visitation limits and ways for military personnel to celebrate Jewish holidays.

And it all started in Surfside.

5. The Community Is a Model of Kindness, Generosity and Compassion—and Has Responded to Tragedy with an Outstretched Hand and a Hug

The Surfside Jewish community has always been one in which giving to others is an ideal that is held in high regard and practiced in profusion.

When the tragic collapse took place, the community quickly galvanized into action. The Shul has become a resource center for family members of victims as well as first responders and rescue teams who have converged on the city. Hundreds were hosted by The Shul for Shabbat meals.

Folding tables set up in the Shul are piled high with clothing, toys, food, electronics and household goods for people who’ve lost everything in the collapse and for people who dropped everything to come to Surfside. An emergency fund set up by The Shul has so far raised more than $1.3 million to be disbursed directly to the victims and families.

As the rescue and recovery efforts continue, the Surfside Jewish community has risen to the task of bringing support and comfort in the midst of unimaginable pain and tragedy.