It’s 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night and Chay Amar‘s synagogue, tucked into the basement of the Ramada in Sunny Isles Beach, is alive with chatter.
After a full day of prayer services and study groups, Amar is just finishing an energetic speech on self-esteem to five dozen young professionals — mostly singles — as he takes out his iPhone and reads his phone number.
If anybody had any problems “relationship, job, faith-related or otherwise,” he says, “text me.”
It’s another late session of “Live with Chay Amar,” an hourlong motivational chat that the Orthodox rabbi has given for the past five years at Chabad of Golden Beach, the small synagogue he founded 11 years ago. The men and women, mostly in their 20s and 30s hailing from Boca Raton to Kendall, attend the weekly sessions as much for Amar’s wise words as the chance to meet other singles with religious inclinations.
“What God wants is not picture-perfect robots,” the bearded, suited rabbi said in a recent session to a group that included lawyers, accountants and corporate sales representatives.
“He wants us to be able to build ourselves, overcome these challenges . . . instead of completely erasing ourselves from our desires, what we need to do is erase ourselves to a higher desire.”
Between words like these, Amar, 37, peppered in less lofty anecdotes about himself.
“Tonight, I went shopping. I went to Publix. What usually takes me a half-hour took me an hour and 15 minutes because my head was troubled with the problems of life,” he said before joking that it took so long “because I get to hear everybody else’s problems.”
The crowd laughed, and knew his words were partially true. It’s not uncommon for Amar to spend hours before and after his Wednesday events counseling people on everything from dating and marriage to career and finances.
“He is giving more secular Jews a more religious way to think about their secular life, putting it through a lens that’s a little more tangible, a little more religious,” but not overly faith-oriented, said Jessica Moreno, who has attended Amar’s talks since February.
Moreno, 28, lives in Boca Raton and learned of Amar through friends.
“I have friends who, when they visit from New York, will make it a point to attend his classes,” she said as the crowd gathered late one night around a table of hummus, pita and salad after the rabbi finished a talk on the “pursuit of happiness.”
“We live today with the luxuries of kings, but we live in a society that is constantly depending on us to have more and more. You get a MacBook Pro. At the beginning, it is exciting. You have a new car and it’s going to be fun for a certain period of time. You buy a watch,” Amar said.
“But that’s not true happiness . . . is it challenges that push us away from our happiness, or are challenges the actual process of reaching and getting to our happiness?”
Amar, who was born in Israel, grew up in Montreal, studied language and philosophy in France and attended rabbinical school in the United Kingdom, rarely quotes the Torah in his talks, and tailors his chats to the largely non-Orthodox crowd.
“I am not here to force people to be religious, but what I am here to do is to give people the tools so they can grow and tap into themselves,” Amar says. “People are looking for inspiration. They want an energy that is greater than themselves.”
That emphasis on spirituality could be attributed to the rabbi’s involvement in Chabad Lubavitch, a large Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism. The Chabad movement is not about building a temple and increasing synagogue membership, Amar says, but awakening the dormant faith in Jewish people. Most people who attend his seminars are not regular attendees of religious services at his 150-member synagogue.
Besides his own synagogue, Amar is a regular speaker at many of the Chabad centers in South Florida, of which there are about 60 in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
David Mizrachi, who grew up in Aventura as a secular Jew, got involved in the Chabad movement five years ago. As he got older, he said, he sought more spirituality in his life. Now 27, he is one of a handful of people who attend both weekday prayers at Amar’s synagogue and come to his late-night talks.
He has helped me with everything, my social life, my family life, most importantly improving my attitude toward myself, my place in this world,” Mizrachi said.
“Almost every Wednesday night we are so pumped up on positive thought that we get a group to go out from here to a kosher restaurant or coffee shop to chat late into the night.”
Mizrachi is single, but like most of those who attend the rabbi’s motivational talks, he is looking. Besides nearby kosher spots, Q Restaurant & Lounge in Aventura is another popular venue where groups of the Wednesday night audience go for drinks and socializing.
“I have been coming here for years and I have not met the love of my life,” said Mizrachi, “but being a believing Jew, I know she could come at any moment, and anyway, I definitely come for the classes and the rabbi’s talks first.”