Florida, United States
The first known Jews moved to the panhandle of Florida,
the city of Pensacola, in 1763. (It is possible, however, that the explorer
Ponce de Leon came to the area in 1513 with some conversos). More Jews
followed to the northern part of the state over the next few decades.
By this time, however, the Jewish community had a population of only
a dozen or so individuals.
By 1821, 30-40 Jews lived in the northern parts of
the state. Among them was Moses Levy, an influential Moroccan lumber
dealer who built a Jewish colony in Mcanopy, home of the present-day
University of Florida. Levy denounced slavery during the Civil War period,
although his son later served in the Confederate congress.
On March 3, 1845, Florida became a state. Fewer than
100 Jews lived in the state, which then had a population of 66,500,
but this did not prevent them from achieving prominent places in society.
For example, the first U.S. Senator from Florida, David
Levy Yulee, was Moses Levy's son. He served two terms; the first
from 1845-1851 and then again from 1855-1861.
By this time, the Jewish community started to flourish.
The Jacksonville Hebrew Cemetery, the first Jewish institution in Florida,
was established in 1857. The first congregation, Beth El, was established
in 1876. By 1900 six congregations had been established.
By 1928, roughly 40 percent of the Jewish population
of 10,000 lived in Jacksonville. When Miami Beach started developing
a reputation for a great night life and economic prosperity, the city
began to attract Jews hoping for economic success in the city. Approximately
5,000 Jews lived in Miami by the 1940s.
The total Jewish population in Florida by 1940 grew
to approximately 25,000. During World War II, hotels previously inaccessible
to Jews were owned by the army or government and began to allow Jewish
customers. The advent of air conditioning made Florida a more hospitable
place and more Jews began to migrate to the state and, especially, toward
the beach area.
By 1960, more than 175,000 Jews resided in the state.
Many elderly Jews began to retire to South Florida. Others immigrated
from the Caribbean and Latin America.
Today, the Jewish population of Florida is about 750,000.
It is the third largest concentration of Jews in the country, and South
Florida has the single largest concentration of Jews (13 percent of
the total population) outside of Israel.
Noteworthy Jewish personalities of Florida include
Admiral Ellis Zacharias of Jacksonville, who broke codes during World
War II, and Marshall Warren Nirenberg of Orlando, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize for understanding
the genetic code.
Miami and South Florida
The first Jew to arrive in Miami was Samuel Singer,
who migrated from northern Palm Beach in 1895. He was the exception
- most Jews were moving in the opposite direction, from Key West in
the south to the northern city of Miami.
The first Jews in Key West were recorded in 1832. The
identity of the first immigrants is unknown.
The Key West Jewish community started after a shipwreck
in 1884. Joseph Wolfson's family sailed from Hungary after the accident
and settled in the area. The Jews were instrumental in the cigar industry,
which started in Key West. Many Jews and Cubans became close business
partners and friends, which led to Jewish support for Cuban independence
throughout the 1890s.
Some early anti-Semitic attitudes among Miami's developers were prevalent, including Carl Fisher's
refusal to serve Jewish customers and Henry Flagler's prohibition on
land sales and hotel lodgings for Jewish clients.
Many of the Jewish settlers were merchants, and Key
West passed an ordinance on a heavy tax for pushcarts. In response,
the Jews of Key West opened their own stores and permanently settled
in the area. In 1907, leaders of the community opened Bnai Zion.
Despite anti-Semitic attitudes, a group of Jews held
their own Yom Kippur services
in 1896 in a room over a retail store. The group was short-lived: a
yellow fever epidemic killed some and the remainder fled to other parts
of the state.
The first synagogue in Miami, Bnai Zion, was established in 1912. It is currently the Beth
David synagogue on Southwest Third Avenue.
A famous Miami personality was Alfred Stone, political
activist during the Civil Rights era. Rabbis around the state followed
his lead and as a result, several synagogues in Miami and Jacksonville
As a result of the Depression in the 1930s, the once
thriving Jewish population decreased to only 12 families.
Miami's first Jewish mayor, Abe Aronowitz, was elected
Jews fled to Miami beach after Fidel Castro came to power. The community
was not welcomed by the larger Jewish community and has developed its
own close-knit community within the Jewish one.
The Fort Lauderdale community's origins are similar
to Miami's. A group of Jews also met over a restaurant for Yom
Kippur services. A hurricane in 1926 prevented the population from
increasing. This hurricane was the biggest in Florida's history until
Hurricane Andrew in 1992. A subsequent real estate bust shattered the
hopes of many to move to Fort Lauderdale and it took many years for
the community to rebuild itself.
Tragedy hit Key West in 2002 when an arson destroyed
the Bnai Zion synagogue. Since then, the synagogue has been restored,
but the arsons were never discovered.
Sights and Culture in Miami:
Beth Jacob, 311 Washington Ave: Miami Beach's
Beth Jacob, built in 1936, has a creme-colored building with a copper
Moorish dome. The Jewish gangster Meir Lansky and his cronies attended
services here and gave the synagogue the appellation "the gangster
Beth Jacob interior
The Jewish Museum of Florida: Located next
door to Beth Jacob. The museum's permanent exhibit, "MOSAIC: Jewish
Life in Florida from 1763 to the Present," will give the visitor
a feel for the history of Jewish life in Florida. In includes pictures
of area Jews, including Jewish cigar makers, and artifacts from the
community such as mah-jongg sets. One particularly worthwhile photo
is of Herbert Kalliner, a passenger of the St. Louis ship fleeing Europe
in 1939 but forced by the State Department to return. Kalliner returned
to Miami after the war, but the rest of his family did not survive the
The Jewish Museum of Florida
Holocaust Memorial: Located at the corner of
Dade Boulevard and Meridian Avenue.Designed by Kenneth Triester with
black granite and Jerusalem stone, the museum displays photographs from
the era and tries to model the children's way to the death camps through
song and architecture.
Temple Emanu-El: Across the street from the
Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, this synagogue has white
and red stone features and an octogonal-shaped sanctuary with wooden
doors. The synagogue is the largest and most impressive in Miami Beach.
The Temple is at 1701 Washington Avenue.
Beth Shalom: This synagogue started as a congregation
for soldiers during World War II. The new sanctuary built after the
war resembles that of the architecture in the Flintstones. The synagogue
has many culture and entertainment programs which spread into the community.
Performances have included visits by Vladimir Horowtiz, Yo Yo Ma, Yitzchak
Perlman, Luciano Pavarotti, Beverly Sills, Leontyne Price, and Zubin
Mehta with the Israel Philharmonic. The synagogue is located at 4144
The Cuban Synagogues:The Cuban Hebrew Congregation
(a.k.a. Temple Beth Shmuel) at 1700 Michigan Avenue was first organized
by Askenazim in 1961. A Cuban Jewish architect named Oscar Sklar was
asked to design the t temple in 1981. The wing at the Lenox Avenue entrance
is the most interesting.
Temple Moses is at 1200 Normandy Drive. It
is a Sephardic Cuban synagogue;
most of its members are of Turkish descent.
Beth David: This synagogue is Miami's oldest
congregation. The structure is unlike that of more modern buildings.
Built in 1949, the architecture features a dome with six supporting
columns. The bimah is made of Brazilian mahogany. A ballroom with a
chandelier is next door. The neighborhood is no longer Jewish, but 650
dedicated members attend from many different communities. A museum,
the Beck Museum of Judaica, is located within the premises.
Beck Museum of Judaica: As part of Beth David
congregation, this museum features many artifacts from all over Europe
and other countries. A Persian Torah from the 1600s, a travel-size Torah
from Bavaria, a Hungarian prayer schedule with moveable clock faces,
and pop-up Rosh Hashana cards from prewar England and Germany are just
a few of the many historical Jewish objects found in this museum. The
synagogue address is 2625 SW Third Avenue.
As of 2013, Florida's Jewish population was approximately 638,985 people.
Tigay, Alan M. The
Jewish Traveler. North Bergen: Book-mart Press, 1994.
Greater Miami Jewish
Israelowitz, Oscar. Synagogues
of the United States. Brooklyn: Israelowitz Publishing, 1992.
Synagogue photos courtesy of Jewish