Mayer Abramowitz was a beloved congregational rabbi and a hero to thousands of displaced Jews from Eastern Europe and Cuba.
Known as “Sunshine” for his positive energy and sense of humor, Rabbi Abramowitz was born in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1919 and moved to New York with his family at age 9. He attended Yeshiva University and was ordained at Jewish Theological Seminary in 1944. As a young clergyman, Rabbi Abramowitz heard about Holocaust survivors living stark existences in displaced persons camps in Germany. He immediately enlisted in the Army as a chaplain and first lieutenant, and was stationed in Berlin.
Ministering to traumatized stateless Jews at a DP camp, Rabbi Abramowitz met his future wife Rachel, a Holocaust survivor. Inspired by Rachel, Rabbi Abramowitz led large-scale efforts to help thousands of survivors rebuild their lives. He created a school and summer camp for 2500 Jewish children, some of whom had lost their entire families. He trained many Jewish youth to become teachers. Rabbi Abramowitz was active in the underground effort to bring Holocaust survivors to Palestine, then controlled by the British, who strictly limited Jewish immigration.
In 1951, Rabbi Abramowitz and his wife moved to Miami Beach, where he became rabbi of Temple Memorah, where he served for 45 years. A few years before moving to Miami, Rabbi Abramowitz and Rachel visited Cuba. This was the beginning of a deep connection with Cuban Jews. “I don’t know who took me to Cuba because I never took a vacation, but it was probably God,” the rabbi later said.
After the Cuban revolution in 1959, most Jews fled the country to escape Communist oppression. Many of them settled in Miami Beach, and Rabbi Abramowitz was the first “Anglo” rabbi to welcome them into his congregation. From 1960 to 1962, Operation Pedro Pan, run by Catholic Charities, brought over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors to Miami. Most of the children were Catholic, but about a hundred were Jewish. Rabbi Abramowitz and the Temple Menorah community supported these young Cuban exiles and helped them find homes in America.
Former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen comes from a family of Jewish Cubans and grew up in Rabbi Abramowitz’s synagogue. She said, “He was especially helpful in the tough early years when so many Cuban refugees were coming over and we were so unfamiliar with how to get a job, get help for the elderly, or feed young children. The faith community, as always, really helped so many Cuban refugees. And Rabbi Abramowitz set the tone for others like him to emulate his kindness. A real mensch.”
Rabbi Abramowitz died on February 2, 2017 at his home in Miami Beach at age 97. He was survived by his wife Rachel, three children, 11 grandchildren, and 22 great-grandchildren.
For his tireless work helping displaced Jews in Eastern Europe and Cuba, and for his decades of service to the Miami Jewish community, we honor Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz as this week’s Thursday Hero.
Image: Rabbi Abramowitz leading Jewish refugees in song at a DP camp in Germany after the war
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