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Virtual Jewish World: Florida, United States

General History

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.

As of 2018 Florida's Jewish population is estimated at 621,460.  

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.

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 were bombed.

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 in 1953.

Many Cuban 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.

The Greater Miami Jewish Federation reported in October 2014 that Miami's Jewish population was experiencing an increase for the first time in decades.  The Jewish population in Miami was reported at 123,000 in 2014, a jump of 9% from 2004's number of 113,000.  As of October 2014 the Miami Jewish community is slightly larger than the Atlanta, Georgia Jewish community and slightly smaller than the Jewish community in West Palm Beach, Florida.  Miami has the highest proportion of foreign born Jews of any area in the United States, and is a hub for Jews coming to the United States from South and Central American countries.  Large populations of Jews from Venezuela, Argentina, Columbia, Mexico, and Brazil have settled in Miami.  Researchers revealed a 57% increase in Hispanic Jewish adults in Miami over the last decade, and over 9,000 adults living in Miami identify as Israeli. 

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 shul."

Beth Jacob interior

The Jewish Museum of Florida: Located in the former Beth Jacob Synagogue. 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 war.

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.

Temple Emanu-El

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 Chase Avenue.

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.

Uriel Helman, Study Finds Miami Jewish Community is Booming.  Times of Israel, October 20 2014.
Tigay, Alan M. The Jewish Traveler. North Bergen: Book-mart Press, 1994.
Greater Miami Jewish Community.
Israelowitz, Oscar. Synagogues of the United States. Brooklyn: Israelowitz Publishing, 1992.
Jewish Museum of Florida
Jewish Key West
Synagogue photos courtesy of Jewish Buffalo