Miami's Jewish History
A Brief History of the Jewish Community of Greater Miami
By Marcia Jo Zerivitz
Founding Executive Director & Chief Curator, Jewish Museum of Florida, Miami Beach
Florida, the first of the American territories to be discovered and settled, did not allow Jews to settle until 1763, and was among the last to develop a substantial Jewish population. Contrary to myth, Miami was among Florida’s latest communities to develop a Jewish population, which has been transformed in little more than a century from a settlement of frontiersmen to the core of the nation’s third largest Jewish community.
In the 1890s, Jews came from other places in the United States (either New York or Key West) and were mostly immigrants from Russia and Romania. By 1896, Jews owned 12 of the 16 businesses in the pioneer town, Miami. They had religious services that year; then there was a fire and yellow fever epidemic. By 1903, the Jewish population declined to Isidor Cohen.
The Beginning of Many Things
Miami remained a hostile environment, but a fledgling tourist industry sustained optimism. In 1904, Cohen married Ida Schneidman; they had a daughter in 1906 and the first bris was celebrated in 1907. In 1913, there was a Jewish wedding and the first Jews settled on Miami Beach (south of Fifth Street, where Jews were allowed to live). That same year, the death of a Jewish tourist forced the small Jewish community of 35 to create the first congregation (that became Beth David) and a cemetery. By 1915, there were 55 Jews in Miami, and other organizations were formed to meet the needs of the community.
Advertising, combined with abundant land, new roads, the automobile and commercial aviation, created a tourist and real estate boom in the 1920s. A population of 100 Jewish families exploded to 3,500 Jews. Jews founded Temple Israel and were among those who chartered the University of Miami, which today has a Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies and Hillel. During that decade, 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 steamship, and the Jewish population grew to about 4,500. Satellite communities emerged. The hotel, banking and construction industries escalated with greater participation by Jews, who also helped start Miami-Dade College and Florida International University, with a Judaic Studies Program. The 1930s also marked the dismantling on Miami Beach of restrictive barriers to Jewish ownership of real estate, as large numbers of Jews purchased properties from debt-ridden owners only too happy to sell them. 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 Miami Beach Art Deco buildings of the 1930s and 1940s – many designed, built and operated by Jews – are architectural treasures known throughout the world. In the 1980s, Barbara Baer Capitman, a Jew, launched the campaign that established the Art Deco District.
Helping the Vulnerable
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 Jewish Home for the Aged (now Miami Jewish Health Systems) began in 1940. By the mid-1940s, there were about 30,000 Jews and about 50 percent of them lived on Miami Beach.
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. 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. But, Jewish doctors could not get staff privileges at any area hospitals. In response, Jewish leaders formed Mount Sinai Hospital on Miami Beach.
The tourist industry was revitalized with the widespread use of air conditioning, mosquito control, development of the 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, there were 55,000 Jews.
For the next five years, approximately 650 Jews arrived each month. A new house was built every seven minutes – and many of the builders were Jews. In 1952, Abe Aronovitz became the first (and to date, the only) Jewish mayor of Miami (although Miami Beach has had 15 Jewish mayors). Following the communist takeover of Cuba in 1959, about 10,000 Cuban Jews immediately fled the country, finding refuge in Miami and its environs; their 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 many were moving into medical and legal professions. In 1963, the first two Jews from South Florida were elected to the state legislature and Florida had its second Jew in Congress. (The first was David Levy Yulee, who brought Florida into statehood in 1845; the second, William Lehman.) In this period, Jews began to move to North Miami and North Miami Beach. Cuban Jews started their own congregations.
In the 1970s, about 80 percent of the population on Miami Beach was Jewish. By 1980, the Greater Miami Jewish population reached its all-time peak of 230,000, with a full array of Jewish organizations. Miami became the new Ellis Island for people fleeing troubled countries. 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. Many of the older Jews, who had lived on Miami Beach, had died. But the Jewish community has been reinvigorated by the arrival of Jews from Latin America, Russia and Israel. Jews on Miami Beach have been deeply involved politically and in developing the tourist industry, and all the museums and most of the arts organizations were started by Jews.
Today, there is a resurgence of Orthodoxy, especially among younger families. 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. One congregation on South Beach sold its historic properties to the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, which opened in 1995 to collect, preserve and interpret the 250-year Jewish experience in Florida.
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. The original developers did not want Greater Miami to become “a Jewish outfit.” It did not, but the Jews have left an indelible footprint on the area’s history. The Jewish population decreased, but stabilized at about 120,000 with a high percentage of retired and elderly persons. 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. Greater Miami hosts Florida’s third largest Jewish population and the nation’s tenth largest.