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Miami-Dade County

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, located on the southeast coast of Florida. Miami-Dade County is comprised of 32 cities with Miami as the county seat and largest and oldest city. Miami, founded in 1896, was difficult to reach until the railroad was extended southward. The stereotyped image as the destination of Jews settling in Florida has been "Miami." In reality, Miamiwas among the state's latest communities to develop a Jewish population at all, with the Jews coming from other places in the United States (either New York or Key West); they were mostly immigrants from Russia and Romania. Romanian Jews had come to Key West in the 1880s and 1890s and left either as a result of a peddler's tax in 1891, the decline of the cigar industry, or the general decline of that city as the railroad arrived in Miami. Russian Jews who had come to New York began to come south with the railroad, first to Ft. Pierce, West Palm Beach, then Miami. This was true of the earliest Jews to settle in Miami. The first Jew to arrive in Miami in 1895 was either Sam Singer or Jake Schneidman. The earliest permanent Jewish settler was Isidor Cohen, who was a signatory of the city's charter in 1896 and helped found many Jewish and civic organizations. About 25 of these pioneer Jews had religious services beginning in 1896. There was no synagogue at the time but a rabbi was brought from West Palm Beach to conduct High Holy Day services. After the great fire that destroyed most of the businesses and took the life of Jewish merchant Julius Frank on December 26, 1896, and a yellow fever epidemic in 1899, the Jewish population declined by 1900 to three people: Isidor Cohen and Jake and Ida Schneidman; then Jake soon died. Cohen said that Jews owned 12 of Miami's first 16 retail stores. Miami remained a hostile environment for would-be settlers. Nonetheless, aided by the railroad and a fledgling tourist industry, Miami didn't give up. In 1905 Cohen married widow Ida Schneidman and the first brit was celebrated in 1907 for their son, Eddie, the first Jewish birth in the city. A girl, Nell Lehrman, was born in 1914. The death of a Jewish tourist in 1913 forced the small Jewish community to gather to discuss creating an organization and a cemetery. Meeting at the home of Mendel Rippa, the group of 35 Jews established the first congregation in Miami. They called it B'nai Zion, in tribute to its first president, Morris Zion. Later, the name was changed to Beth David. By 1915, there were 55 Jews in Miami. In the 1920s there was a Zionist Society; the United Jewish Aid Association (that eventually became Jewish Family Service); a B'nai B'rith lodge; chapters of the National Council of Jewish Women and Hadassah; Workmen's Circle The New Jewish Unity newspaper (1926–35); and then the Jewish Floridian (1928–90). Tremendous advertising combined with abundant land, new roads, and the availability of the automobile and commercial aviation, created a tourist and real estate boom. A population of 30,000 (that included 100 Jewish families) exploded to more than 130,000 with 3,500 Jews by 1925. Jews founded Temple Israel, the first Reform congregation, in 1922, and were among those who chartered the University of Miami in 1925. The hurricane that swept Miami just as Kol Nidre services on Yom Kippur ended on September 18, 1926, brought the real estate boom to an abrupt halt. From 1926 to 1931, the city suffered a boom and bust, two hurricanes, the failure of five banks, and finally the stock market crash. Headlines screamed, "Miami is Wiped Out."

But the headlines were wrong. By the mid-1930s, Miami began a gradual recovery. New residents arrived by air, train, and the Mallory Steamship Line. Streetcars were introduced in the city. Tourists were lured to boating, fishing, and tropical gardens attractions. Miami began to gain a reputation as the "gateway to Latin America" – a reputation that would increase dramatically as the century wore on. During the 1930s, approximately 4,500 Jews lived among a Miami population of more than 110,000. Satellite communities emerged. The hotel, building, and banking industries escalated with greater participation by Jews. Jews helped start and continue to support Miami-Dade College, the University of Miami, which has a Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies and Hillel, and Florida International University with a Judaic Studies Program. The perilous situation of European Jews evoked a response in Miami's small but active Jewish community, which founded the Greater Miami Jewish Federation in 1938. The first president was Stanley C. Myers. Ida Cohen founded the Jewish Home for the Aged with a $10,000 donation from a non-Jew in 1940; today it is a leader in the field of all levels of care for the Jewish frail and elderly.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, local leaders, seeking to expand business and visibility, convinced the government that Miami was the ideal location for training military personnel. As a result, funding and soldiers poured into the area, particularly Miami Beach. Many of these soldiers were Jews, who returned after the war, when South Florida's image as a year-round resort reemerged. The tourist industry was revitalized with the widespread use of air conditioning, mosquito control, the development of Miami International Airport, and Israeli businessman Ted Arison's expansion of the cruise ship business. The post-war economic boom brought additional tourists and settlers to Miami. Many were Jews, attracted by the new jobs created from tourism. In 1950, Dade County had a population of 495,000 people of which 55,000 were Jewish. For the next five years, approximately 650 Jews arrived each month. A new house was built every seven minutes during this period – and many of the builders were Jews. In 1952 Abe Aronovitz became the first (and to date, the only) Jewish mayor of Miami. Many Jews, horrified by news of the Holocaust, began to challenge antisemitism at home. The Miami branch of the Anti-Defamation League had been founded in 1940. During the McCarthy era, bombings and desecration of area synagogues were prevalent. Following the communist takeover of Cuba in 1959, 10–12,000 Cuban Jews immediately fled the country, finding refuge in Miami and its environs. In Miami, the presence of middle-class Cubans with business acumen helped revitalize the city.

In the post-war period until the mid-1960s, most jobs were related to the tourist and building industries or real estate. Most Jews were involved in the services and retail trades, but by the 1960s, many were moving into medical and legal professions. In 1963 the first two Jews from South Florida were elected to the state legislature – Murray Dubbin and Louis Wolfson II. William Lehman was Florida's second Jew to serve in the U.S. Congress (after David Levy Yulee in the 19th century) when he began his 20 years of service in the House of Representatives in 1973. Lehman was a powerful force on transportation legislation, responsible for bringing mass transit to South Florida. In this period, Jews began to move north to North Miami and North Miami Beach. Cuban Jews started their own congregations.

From a shipping family, Israeli Ted *Arison , in 1972, acquired his own ship, the Mardi Gras, which was the start of Carnival Cruise Lines, today the largest cruise company in the world. Arison headed the campaign to bring professional basketball to South Florida (Miami Heat) and was the chief benefactor of the New World Symphony, founded by Michael Tilson *Thomas . The 1973 Arab oil embargo plunged Miami into the worst recession since the 1930s. Yet Jewish Miami continued to grow. By 1980 the Greater Miami Jewish population reached its all time peak of 230,000, with a full array of Jewish organizations, including Jewish Federation TV and the Miami Jewish Tribune (1986–93). The Miami Herald published an insert, the Jewish Star Times (2000–02).

In the 1980s, Miami became the new Ellis Island for people fleeing troubled countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The influx of Caribbean immigrants, as well as the growing Spanish-speaking Cuban population, alienated some people and many Jews moved north to Broward and Palm Beach counties. By 1985 the Jewish population had declined to 209,000. As well, many of the old Jews, who had lived on Miami Beach, had died. But the greater Miami Jewish community was reinvigorated by the arrival of Jews from Latin America, Russia, and Israel. In 2005 the Jewish population of the county has decreased but stabilized at about 121,000 with a high percentage of retired and elderly persons (but less than in Broward and Palm Beach counties). There are more than 60 congregations, 34 Jewish educational institutions, and three Jewish community centers. The highest percentage and increase in Jewish population is in North Dade, especially in Aventura. Miami-Dade County hosts Florida's third largest Jewish population and the nation's tenth largest.

Miami Beach and Antisemitism

From the early 20th century, people visited the southern tip of Florida to picnic on its sandy beaches or bathe in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1913 the Collins Bridge opened, joining the beach to the mainland. That same year, New York Jews Joe and Jenny Weiss, and their son Jesse, relocated to Miami Beach. Joe and Jennie operated a snack bar at a popular bathing spot at the tip of the beach, the only place Jews could settle. Several years later, the Weiss family opened Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant in a small, wooden frame house, which they continued to expand and today remains the site of this world famous restaurant. It is still run by descendants of the Weiss family. Developers placed restrictive covenants in their land deeds that prohibited the sale of Miami Beach lots to Jews: "No lot shall be sold, conveyed, leased to anyone not a member of the Caucasian race, nor to anyone having more than one quarter Hebrew or Syrian blood." A letter, written in 1920, stated, "We don't want Miami Beach to ever become a Jewish outfit – it would not only ruin the Hotel but ruin the property." However, the Lummus Brothers who owned properties at the southern end of Miami Beach, did not bar Jews from ownership. Several modest Jewish-owned hotels and apartments arose on property sold to Jews south of Fifth Street. These early Beach Jews owned and lived in apartments and rented units to others. This was their chief source of income. Sam Magid and Joseph and Harry Goodkowsky moved to Miami Beach and in 1921 built the Nemo Hotel on Collins Avenue and First Street, the first hotel to cater to kosher Jewish winter tourists. Shortly thereafter, the Seabreeze Hotel, also kosher, opened nearby at Collins and Second Street. Rose and Jeremiah Weiss and their children moved to Miami Beach in 1919 because of Rose's health problems. They bought the Royal Apartments, which had dwellings for 15 families. Rose Weiss, known as "the Mother of Miami Beach," attended every city commission meeting for nearly 40 years and created the city's flag. In the mid-1920s, the Jacobs family opened the first of three hotels. The Blackstone opened in 1929 on Washington Avenue and Eighth Street. Built by Nathan Stone, the grandfather of future U.S. Senator Richard Stone, this hostelry became one of South Beach's most imposing buildings, as well as a haven for Jewish visitors. George Gershwin reportedly wrote portions of Porgy and Bess while reposing in the hotel's rooftop solarium.

Despite this activity, the Jewish population of Miami Beach grew slowly in the first half of the 1920s. It was confined to an area from Fifth Street south to the tip of the peninsula. Malvina Weiss Gutschmidt, the daughter of Rose Weiss, noted that there were no Jewish residences north of Fifth Street until 1925. From 1925 until the end of the decade a rapidly growing Jewish neighborhood moved north all the way to Lincoln Road at 16th Street. A fantastic real estate boom, which overtook all of South Florida and much of the rest of the state in the mid-1920s, prompted this growth. The boom led to the creation of hundreds of new subdivisions and communities in Greater Miami and to a sharp increase in the area's population. This speculative era lured many "bigger than life" Jews: bankers Leonard Abess and Baron de Hirsch *Meyer and attorney, businessman, Zionist, and community builder Max Orovitz. Henri Levy, a French-born Jew, migrated with his family to Miami Beach, an area he characterized as "a lush tropical paradise." In 1922 Levy developed the smart boom-era communities of Normandy Isle and Normandy Beach North, which later became Surfside. The boom collapsed in 1926, when a hurricane smashed into South Beach and other parts of the county. But many "boomers," whose ranks included a considerable number of Jews, remained in the area. In the 1930s, Miami Beach's Jewish population grew significantly, reaching at least several thousand (out of an overall population for Miami Beach of 28,012) by decade's end, as Miami-Dade County, formerly called Greater Miami, replaced Jacksonville as the center of Florida Jewry.

Many of the new arrivals to Miami Beach came initially as tourists. Most came from the northeast United States. Most hotels and apartments continued to exhibit "Gentile Only" signs. Jewish builders erected many of the finest hotels on South Beach during the 1930s. Many bore the Streamline or Nautical Modern style of architecture designed by Henry Hohauser, who moved to Miami Beach in 1936. His initial project was to design a new sanctuary for Miami Beach's first congregation – the building that now houses the Jewish Museum of Florida. For the next ten years, this brilliant architect was responsible for the design of more than 100 hotels, apartments, and buildings on Miami Beach. The Art Deco buildings of the 1930s and 1940s on Miami Beach are architectural treasures known throughout the world. The square-mile district is bounded by Fifth Street to 23rd Street, Lenox Avenue to Ocean Drive. In the 1980s, Barbara Baer Capitman, a Jew, launched the campaign that established the Art Deco District, the largest collection of 1930s Art Deco and Art Moderne buildings in the nation. Jews operated many of the hotels. The 1930s also marked the dismantling of restrictive barriers to Jewish ownership of real estate throughout the Beach, as large numbers of Jews purchased commercial properties from debt-ridden owners only too happy to sell them. Jews also began buying residential lots whose restrictive covenants proved impossible to enforce after the property had changed owners a couple of times. While discrimination had by no means vanished, conditions were improving. But it was not until 1949 that a law was passed by Florida's legislature that ended discrimination in real estate and hotels. The Jewish retail, institutional, and residential presence was most strongly felt at the southern portion of the island, especially along Washington Avenue and Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive, stretching from the tip more than one mile north to, and even beyond, Lincoln Road. Small Jewish businesses dotted Miami Beach streets and Jewish tenants filled apartments. In 1925, Jews began meeting for services in apartments. Several very observant Canadian Jewish visitors lobbied for a synagogue. As a result of their efforts, Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation was organized in 1927. In the 1930s, as the Jewish population moved into areas north of Fifth Street, many members of Beth Jacob broke away and organized a Conservative congregation. Jacob Joseph of Miami Beach subsequently became the Miami Beach Community Center in the 1940s, and, finally, in 1954, Temple Emanu-El. Rabbi Irving *Lehrman served as the powerful spiritual leader for 50 years. As the Jewish population continued to move north, and many Jewish soldiers poured into the area for wartime training, Jews founded the Beth Sholom Center in a storefront on 41st Street in 1942 (it was renamed Temple Beth Sholom in 1945), where Rabbi Leon *Kronish served for nearly 50 years. Today there are more than 20 congregations on the Beach. Jewish education is abundant: the Hebrew Academy since 1947, Lehrman Day School since 1960, and Talmudic Academy since 1974. There has been a mikveh since 1945 and an eruv since 1982. Commensurate with their increase in numbers, Jews began to play increasingly more important civic roles. Baron de Hirsch *Meyer , who came to the area during the boom after earning a law degree from Harvard, served as president of numerous Jewish organizations and was the first Jew to sit on the Miami Beach City Council (1934). Mitchell Wolfson, who migrated to Miami with his family around 1915 from Key West, became Miami Beach's second Jewish councilman. Like de Hirsch Meyer, Wolfson was a stellar businessman, civic leader, and visionary. In 1943 he was elected mayor, the first of 15 Jews who have served as mayor of Miami Beach (as of 2005). Mitchell Wolfson was very important to business in Miami. With his brother-in-law Sidney Meyer, Wolfson formed WOMETCO (Wolfson Meyer Theater Company) in 1949. WOMETCO became the first television station in Florida, WTVJ. Wolfson also built the Seaquarium and left an endowment to create the Wolfson campus of Miami-Dade College. By the mid-1940s, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation placed the number of Jews in Dade County at 29,325 in a county nearing 400,000 in population. Nearly one-half of these Jews lived on Miami Beach.

Less civic-minded Jews also embraced Miami Beach. Most prominent of these was Meyer *Lansky , the reputed boss of South Florida crime in the middle decades of the 20th century. Less "prominent" than Lansky nationally but quite active on the Beach was the S&G Syndicate, founded and operated by five Jews. From its office on Washington Avenue, the S&G controlled bookmaking in a couple of hundred hotels on Miami Beach and elsewhere in the area in the 1940s, grossing millions of dollars annually. A U.S. Senate crime investigating committee, chaired by Estes Kefauver, put the syndicate out of business in the early 1950s.

The tragedy of the Holocaust caused many Jews to turn to Zionism. In 1944, more than 8,000 persons gathered in Miami's Bayfront Park to hear Dr. Stephen S. Wise, a renowned scholar and leader, present the case for the Jewish people and for a homeland in Palestine. Some South Florida Jews, led by Shepard Broad (Broad Causeway honors him), helped outfit boats and planes to transport Jews from Displaced Persons (DPS) camps in Europe to Palestine. Inspired by first-hand experience in financing boatloads of Holocaust survivors and DPS to arrive in Palestine, Max Orovitz formed "the Miami Group" with fellow Jewish businessmen and created the Dan Hotel chain in Israel following statehood. Following World War II, Jewish doctors could not get staff privileges at any area hospitals. In response, Jewish leaders in the community formed Mount Sinai Hospital on Miami Beach; Max Orovitz was the founding chairman for 30 years. Today, the 55-acre hospital, the largest employer in that city, is renowned for its leadership in medicine, especially cardiac care.

As the social and cultural fabric of Miami Beach changed following the end of World War II, so did the Beach's physical appearance. Hotels were built rapidly to satiate the desire of tourists for fancy new hotels. The hotel industry was greatly bolstered by Jews, including Ben Novack who, with Harry Mufson, built the Fontainebleau Hotel (1954). Designed by Morris *Lapidus , the elegant hotel quickly became a trademark property. A year later, Mufson commissioned Lapidus to design the equally grandiose Eden Roc Hotel next door.

Larry *King began his live talk show on Miami Beach in 1956. Sophie *Tucker belted her songs in Yiddish during the 1950s and 1960s in Miami Beach hotels. In 1967 Judy Drucker organized the first concert at Temple Beth Sholom and began bringing world famous performers to Miami Beach. Fifteen years later Drucker formed the Concert Association of Florida. From Yiddish theater in the 1930s to Pavarotti on the beach in the 1990s, from the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant at the Fontainebleau Hotel in 1960 to the opening of the Jewish Museum of Florida in 1995, Jews have played an active role in developing the arts and entertainment scene of Miami Beach to what it is today, and they continue to nurture it. Jews started the other museums, Bass Museum of Art and Wolfsonian, as well as the Miami City Ballet. In 1990 Kenneth Treister designed the Holocaust Memorial, a 50-foot outstretched arm with 135 life-sized bronze sculptures.

In the 1970s, about 80% of the population was Jewish. In 2004 it was 20% (about 20,000). There is a resurgence of Orthodoxy (17% of the Beach population), especially among younger families. The elderly Jews have passed away and Latin American and Israeli Jews have arrived. The increasing popularity of Miami Beach, rising real estate values, and a declining Jewish population have forced more synagogues to close their doors and become nightclubs and retail stores. The skyline of Miami Beach has changed from the day the first "skyscraper" went up in 1940. It continues to change, as some buildings come down and new higher ones go up. Jews have been involved in every aspect of these developments, as architects, developers, and contractors. Through their contributions to the physical appearance of Miami Beach, their roles in building the Beach are apparent and perpetual.

(Current demographics (2004) were provided by Ira M. Sheskin, Ph.D., for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.)

[Marcia Jo Zerivitz (2nd ed.)]

Cuban Jewish Community

The Jews of Cuba form a special group among the Jews of Greater Miami. Despite their small number, 2,500 households (2001), they stand out as a link between the large Cuban exile population and the large Jewish population. Unlike other Jews from Latin America, who tend to use Miami as a temporary stopover, the Cubans made Miami their permanent home.

Following the Castro revolution, Cuban Jews started to migrate to South Florida, most of them to Miami Beach. Like other middle-class Cubans, their exodus was motivated by the complete change in the social and economic system under Castro, and particularly by the nationalization of private businesses. Between 1960 and 1963, more than 9,000 Jews, out of the 12,000 that had resided in Cuba prior to the revolution, left the island. Assisted by HIAS, which tried to relocate them in other parts of the United States, they favored Miami, which became their substitute for Havana. They found there a similar landscape and climate and a large Spanish-speaking population.

Though arriving with practically no property, the Cuban Jews were equipped with the experience and education to facilitate their economic integration and eventually their remarkable success. Like other Cuban exiles of the early 1960s they became owners and general managers of large business firms, senior bank executives, and professionals.

The Cuban Jews felt rejected by the resident Jewish population, which was indifferent to their presence and problems. The only congregation that was hospitable to the Cubans was Temple Menorah, which with time became an important social and religious center of Cuban Jews. In 1961 they founded the Círculo Cubano Hebreo, which became the Cuban Hebrew Congregation at the Ashkenazi Beth Shmuel synagogue. In 1969 the Sephardim founded the Cuban Sephardi Hebrew Congregation, and in 1980 they inaugurated their synagogue, Temple Moses (today Torat Moshe).

The two Cuban congregations were founded in Miami Beach, the center of the early immigrants, many of whom were born in Europe, migrated to Cuba, and finally settled in Miami. The younger generation, of Cuban-born Jews, tended to leave the Beaches and concentrate in South Dade. A study by I.M. Sheskin (see Bibliography) showed in 1982 that out of 3,213 Cuban-born Jews, 40% lived in the Beaches, 50% in South Dade, and 10% in North Dade. With time, however, the population of the Beaches decreased considerably, though most Cuban Jews still live within the boundaries of Dade County.

The Cuban-born Jews preserved the social and cultural patterns that they brought over from Cuba: they were very active in Zionist circles, they sent their children to Jewish day schools, and were less influenced by assimilation. With time, however, the Cuban identity tends to diminish. The third generation, born in the United States, is less affected by the Cuban heritage of their parents' community. They are integrated in an English-speaking environment and gradually lose their Cuban characteristics.

[Margalit Bejarano (2nd ed.)]


M. Bejarano, "From Havana to Miami, The Cuban Jewish Community," in: Judaica Latinoamericana, 3 (1997); I.M. Sheskin, Population Study of Greater Miami Jewish Community (1982): B. Heisler-Samuels, "Forced to Leave Homes, Cuban Jews Thrive in Miami," in: the Miami Herald Internet Edition (Jan. 17, 2001).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.