Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation

Jews in Southern Florida

Pesach is the season when literally hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world congregate in sunny Miami, in Southern Florida. They come and enjoy not only the balmy weather, but also the exquisite kosher-shel-Pesach meals available along the string of deluxe Hotels called the "Gold Coast" of America. Visitors from the North, from Israel, Europe and South America join this annual migration of Jewish vacationers.

But Miami is not only a tourist resort for short seasons. It is actually an ever-growing, year-round community which today is the 4th largest Jewish community in America.

Understanding the growth of the Jewish community in Southern Florida is a very interesting exercise in Jewish history. Back in 1915 only ten Jewish families and ten Jewish bachelors lived in all of Dade County, Southern Florida. In 19400, 7,500 Jews lived in Miami, with a rapid growth to 40,000 in 1949, and 69,000 in 1950. In 1989 an estimated 238,000 Jews lived in Dade County. That is more Jews than live in Haifa, Israel. And today, more Jews live in Miami than in Chicago or Philadelphia. Although, New York is the Jewish capital of the United States with one in three U.S. Jews living in New York, Florida is a close runner-up with one in twenty Floridians being Jewish. If you combine three counties in Southern Florida -- Dade, Broward and Palm Beach -- they form the second largest Jewish community in the United States.

The increase is also helped along by the immigration of Jews who escaped from Castro’s Cuba. They form an ethnic grouping of their own. Fortunately, many Cuban Jews have become quite affluent and have founded their own synagogues and schools.

Miami Beach is a special case, in that four out of every five residents there are Jewish. The mayor of Miami Beach is often a Jew, as well as the congressmen and women from Florida.

In my own case, I remember what Miami looked like back in 1945 when I first came there. The Jewish community was clustered around Third Street, where a small kosher boarding house existed. Today’s Collins Avenue was nothing but dunes. With every visit to Miami I noticed more and more Jewish hotels. The names Schechter and Waldman dominated the hotels. Later, my friend Moshe Chayim Berkowitz became the head of a string of excellent hotels, with the popular Crown Hotel being his flagship hotel.

There was a time when Miami was synonymous with Jewish. There is a legend that when David Ben Gurion came to Washington to ask for aid for Israel, President Truman jokingly said he would agree to give aid to Israel, if only Israel would give Miami back to the United States!

We must remember that Florida was never part of the original 13 British Colonies which formed the United States, but was Spanish till the 19th century. One of the first Jews to promote migration to the sunny State was one Moses Elias Levy (1782-1854), a Moroccan Jew who invested a huge fortune in developing lands and plantations in Florida when it was still under Spanish rule. It was Levy who introduced sugar cane to the United States. His son David, became Florida’s first U.S. senator as well as the Senate’s first Jewish member!

It is therefore paradoxical -- but not unusual in Jewish history -- that Miami Beach, under its Christian developer, Carl Fisher, banned Jews from Miami Beach in the beginning of this century! All of the initial hotels, including the Roney Plaza and The Flamingo, were for "gentiles only." Such restrictions crumbled as Miami grew. I remember that as late as 1950 black housekeepers were not allowed to stay overnight in Miami Beach and, of course, had to sit in the back of buses. The anti-Semites of those early days probably turn in their grave at the sight of Miami today!

Many hospitals -- especially the famous Mt. Sinai Hospital -- are entirely funded by Jews. Cultural activities have been introduced by Jews. I am especially thinking about the field of music. Miami is entirely indebted to one vivacious, dynamic Jewish individual, Judy Drucker, for making Miami Beach the world center in classical music. The Concert Association of Florida -- of which my wife and I are members of the Board of Trustees -- annually brings the biggest names in music to standing-room only concerts. Names like Pavarotti, Cecilia Bartoli, Shlomo Mintz and many more fill the concert season.

Although the main population in Miami beach has long abandoned the South Beach areas, where the city started its growth, and has moved up along Collins Avenue and into Bal Harbor, there is a rejuvenation of South Beach going on which baffles observers. People from all over the world are flocking to the remodeled art deco buildings and hotels that had long ago been given up as "passé."

When it comes to Jewish life, there is amazing growth going on. Orthodox Jewry is growing by leaps and bounds. Chabad, of course, has a lot to do with that. It is said that Chabad maintains some 75 institutions in the Miami area. One Lubavitch Rabbi recently completed a huge $6,000,0000 synagogue, called "The Shule," in plush Bal Harbor, its not only Miami Beach, North Miami Beach and other sections of the Miami area are also booming with the establishment of new synagogues, minyanim, kosher restaurants, food stores and, most importantly, day schools and yeshivot. There is at least one kollel in Miami, with two or three yeshivot for advanced students.

When you walk along Arthur Godfrey Road, the main shopping street in Miami Beach, you may think you are in Boro Park. The influence of Miami residents is also felt up North. I remember when former Mayor Lindsay made a bid for a presidential campaign, it was enough that a plane flew over the beaches with a sign fluttering in the air reading "Lindsay is Tzures" to defeat this bid!

Dade County has traditionally been heavily Democratic, since most Jews who came there from the North were liberals. Clinton won in Dade County, but lost the entire state due to the Gentile votes in the rest of Florida. That may very well change in 1996, since so many Jews are disenchanted with Clinton. They are upset that he blindly follows the catastrophic "peace" policies of Rabin even though America’s interests are better served by a strong, not weakened Israel.

Leading Jewish political figures do not fail to visit Miami. Recent visitors include General Arik Sharon, General Avigdor Kahalani, Bibi Netanyahu and many more. Needless to say, fund raisers for yeshivot and other Jewish institutions make constant visits to the Miami area.

The leading Orthodox synagogue on the Beach is Congregation Beth Israel. I remember how it started some 40 years ago in a Chinese laundry before eventually moving into its own building. As well, there is a large number of private and semi-private minyanim on the Beach. One such minyan, in the Carriage House, recently developed into a full-fledged synagogue with a beautiful edifice fitted right into a condo.

A good sign of how the Orthodox community has established itself is the fact that until a few years ago, items such as kosher meat and Shemurah Matzo had to be brought down by individuals from New York. Today, a large number of kosher supermarkets take care of all the requirements for Pesach and the rest of the year.

It helps, of course, that the International Airport of Miami links the city with every major country in the world. You can fly there direct from Israel, Central and South America and Europe. In addition, sea transport in Miami has been developed into a new industry. Cruise ships are constantly sailing in and out of the Port of Miami. These ships are bigger than any ocean liner in the old days of sea transport. The initiator of this new industry is Ted Arrison, an Israeli who came to this country a few decades ago and is now listed among the top "Fortune 500" billionaires. He has returned to Israel where he is active in politics and music and has left his cruise ship empire to his son.

When you come to Miami for Pesach, these interesting facts and background knowledge should make your stay among us Floridians more meaningful and your Pesach more enjoyable! I am listed in the telephone directory. I would love to hear from you.

Chag Kasher Ve-Sameach!

 

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