Miami's Jewish Heritage and History

  • Miami Heritage Month
  • December 1 - 31
Miami's Jewish Museum

By: Remko Jansonius

Today the Jewish presence in the ethnic and cultural patchwork of Greater Miami is a given: a Jewish deli can be found in many neighborhoods, Yiddish is widely spoken in some areas, synagogues and Jewish civic organizations abound, family and business ties with Jewish communities in other parts of the country and abroad are strong.

Indeed, the Jewish community of South Florida is the second largest in North America after New York. In Greater Miami, 150,000 Jews account for approximately seven percent of its total population. While there is a stereotype of Greater Miami as the preferred destination for Jews to visit and settle, it may come as a surprise how recent this situation is, at least within the larger picture of Florida and U.S. history. In reality, Greater Miami was among the latest communities in Florida to have a Jewish population beyond a few individuals.

Due to the harsh environment and inhospitable climate, the area was long considered uninhabitable, and the City of Miami was not incorporated until 1896, with sparsely more than 400 voters. There was a considerable Jewish presence in Miami at that time: 12 of the 16 businesses in the city were owned by Jews. However, Jewish institutions, whether civic or religious, were nonexistent. For such matters the community was too small. To conform with dietary laws, kosher meat had to be shipped in from the north; and to allow burial in a Jewish cemetery, remains of the deceased were taken north to Jacksonville as late as 1912.

Records indicate that in these early years Jews lived and worked side by side with non-Jews without any major friction or discrimination. It was not until later that segregation — albeit not legally, but certainly in social life and in business — became commonplace.

Railroad magnate Henry Flagler, instrumental in the development of South Florida by extending the Florida East Coast Railway to Miami in 1896, attached restrictive covenants to his land sales. Developer Carl Fisher likewise often excluded Jews from buying land or renting rooms in hotels on Miami Beach. For those Jews living in Miami and those spending the winters in South Florida in the 1930s and 1940s, the posted signs and hotel brochures advertising “Restricted Clientele” or “Gentiles Only” were just one apparent aspect of this unofficial policy of segregation and discrimination.

In fact, until the mid-1940s, Jews on Miami Beach were not allowed to live north of South Beach. The first congregation on Miami Beach built a synagogue in 1936 on 3rd Street for that very reason.

Designed by architect Henry Hohauser, its Art Deco features illustrate the architectural style of the era. After years of neglect, it was restored to its original state in 1994 and has been placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The building now houses the Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum of Florida. The collection and exhibits tell the history of Jewish life, not only in Greater Miami and Miami Beach, but in the entire state of Florida.

With the development of the southeast coast of Florida into a vast and bustling metropolitan area, especially after World War II, the Jewish population grew in corresponding, if not larger numbers. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed restrictive covenants, and Miami Beach became the winter playground for American Jews, lured by special advertisements in Jewish newspapers in the northeast.

However, to view the Jewish community within Greater Miami’s cultural diversity as homogenous would be a mistake. As far as religion and observance go, there are Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews, with their own synagogues and associated organizations. Furthermore, there is a large Lubavitch Hasidic population, who especially on Friday afternoon can be seen shopping around 41st Street on Miami Beach in preparation for the Sabbath. And with increasing secularization, more and more Jews view themselves as nonreligious, or only observe the traditions of the religious holidays.

Based on cultural background and national origin, the Jewish community is as diverse as the area’s general population, with Ashkenazim whose ancestors can be traced to central and eastern Europe where Yiddish was spoken and Sephardim, with ancestral roots in the Iberian Peninsula, where Ladino was spoken. With the onset of the Castro regime in 1959, Jews have migrated in large numbers from Cuba and from other countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Many have come from Europe, both before and after World War II, as well as Africa, Asia and Australia. Last but not least, many have come in large numbers as “snowbirds” or as permanent retirees to flee the cold climate in the northeast.

Many elderly people were in Europe during World War II and are survivors of the Holocaust. This segment of the population is growing older, and the numbers are dwindling. The Holocaust Memorial on Meridian Avenue in Miami Beach serves as a lasting testament to this dark episode in human history. The large environmental sculpture, designed by Miami-based architect Ken Treister, combines various outdoor spaces and media to express the horrid reality of the Holocaust.

While the Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum of Florida and the Holocaust Memorial are the most prominent Jewish historic, cultural and educational sites in Greater Miami, they form only the tip of the iceberg of Jewish social, cultural and religious life. There are more than 60 synagogues, three Jewish community centers and 13 day schools; the Greater Miami Jewish Federation is a prime resource for information on Jewish social and cultural activities and educational opportunities. Furthermore, the yeshivot and rabbinical schools make Miami Beach an important center of religious learning.

Hotels that observe the laws of kashrut accommodate large numbers of observant Jews from South Florida and elsewhere in the country during the eight days of Passover. The Jewish section of the Miami City cemetery on Northeast 2nd Avenue, with its ornate tombstones, offers a glimpse into the lives of Jewish pioneers of the early 1900s.

A variety of stores sell Jewish ceremonial art and books on Judaica. Kosher and non-kosher markets and restaurants serve foods more or less reminiscent of Jewish cuisine of the “old country.”

All in all, the Jewish community forms a vibrant part of the cultural and ethnic diversity of Greater Miami and the Beaches.

About the Author:

Remko Jansonius received an MA degree in Cultural Anthropology from the State University of Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1989. He worked as a folklife fieldworker and curator of the objects collections at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida and as Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach. Mr. Jansonius is the Director of Collections at the Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium. He is a native of the Netherlands and has lived in Greater Miami since 1989.

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