History of Jews in South Florida

by Boca Raton Jewish News | Aug 4, 2022 | Featured Stories | 0 comments

History of Jews in South Florida

In 2018, around 7% of American Jews lived in the South Florida region which is made up of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami Dade Counties. Out of these counties, the most populous area is Palm Beach County where the Jewish population makes up 12% of its total population. Despite its notoriety, the history of South Florida’s Jewish community was similar to that of other tiny and late-developing communities in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Jewish people have been a part of the South Florida community since the 19th century and have made lasting contributions to its development. Most notably, Jews were instrumental in establishing the Miami Beach resort and art deco districts.

Before the late 1800s, few Euro-American migrants were drawn to South Florida. This was a result of the climate, topography, and illness that plagued the area. In addition, there was a lack of infrastructure like roads and railroads that made it difficult for towns and cities to form in the area. The earliest record of Jewish inhabitants in the West Palm Beach region can be traced back to 1892. It is believed that these residents may have been the first Jews to migrate to this region. Jewish immigrants who arrived in the later part of the nineteenth century went into the retail industry and owned various establishments in West Palm Beach near the boat terminal.

One such individual was Max Serkin, who arrived in 1896 and ran a vegetable farm, but eventually abandoned his occupation to go into retail. With the arrival of a few itinerant businessmen and some Jewish residents in 1895, the newly established city of Miami quickly began to attract more Jews and became a hub for Jewish life. Within a few years there were more than 20 Jews in Miami, and the young group performed religious services in members’ homes. However, despite its early successes, a huge fire in 1896 as well as a Yellow Fever outbreak in 1899 led many citizens to leave the city. This significantly reduced the Jewish population, with only three members left by 1900.

The Jewish population in South Florida was relatively low in the decades following the turn of the century. Miami, for example, had only five Jewish families according to a 1910 census. Jewish organizational activity in the region can be traced back to the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1910s that a more substantial foundation for their operations was laid. Thirty-five Jewish residents of Miami, Florida convened in the Mendel Rippa’s home in 1913 to successfully create a burial site for the city’s Jews that also served as the first South Florida Synagogue, B’nai Zion.

In less than a decade the Miami Jewish population was able to grow to a number of more than fifty people. The Jewish population in South Florida had a major growth spurt in the early 1920s, when the real estate boom that fueled Florida’s industry also led to an expansion of Jewish spaces. The first synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, was founded in 1921. This expanded to include Temple Beth El, which was founded in 1923. By the year 1925, Miami has seen an astronomical rise in the Jewish population and was reported to be home to around 3,500 Jews.

This number is sixty times higher than in 1915 when only about 300 Jews resided in the city. During the early 1900s, Miami experienced a demographic boom that saw many Jewish communities establish new synagogues and organizations. Temple Israel was established in 1922, and is known to be the first Reform congregation of Miami.. The Great Depression arrived in Florida early. A catastrophic hurricane that hit South Florida on Yom Kippur in 1926 caused considerable devastation. This event, which left over three-quarters of the population without homes, led to a drastic population reduction in the region and transformed Miami into a city that was no longer focused on agriculture but rather real estate and tourism. South Florida began a gradual comeback by the mid-1930’s.

The Jews of Fort Lauderdale founded Temple Emanu-El in 1931, and purchased their own building in 1937. In 1933, the town of Davie was renamed to Hollywood, and Hollywood Beach soon followed suit the following year. Since the 1920s, the total population of the region had fallen, but Miami’s Jewish community was growing. With approximately 4500 Jews residing in Miami, it became one of America’s largest Jewish communities.

As the 1930s progressed, Dade County not only maintained its status as the main Jewish hub in South Florida but also grew to become the state’s biggest Jewish population. With such a strong Jewish presence in Florida, the construction of Miami Beach’s landmark Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Holocaust Memorial was seen as a necessary addition to the city. With the formation of the Shenandoah and South Beach Jewish communities, Miami became home to a complex network of Jewish institutions throughout the 1930s.

By the end of this decade, Jews in this region had created a range of different organizations including schools, synagogues, and young adult organizations. Miami’s Jewish population changed considerably between 1920 and 1940, but the expansion that followed over the next two decades elevated South Florida to the forefront of American Jewish life. Over the course of these two decades, Miami’s Jewish population increased from 2,000 in 1930 to 85,000 in 1960. World War II was the catalyst for South Florida’s rapid growth.

The region witnessed a population boom during and after the war, with millions of veterans returning home to start families. As Jewish veterans of World War 2 returned to the United States, they contributed to the expansion of Jewish communities in South Florida. They played an important role in the creation and development of Jewish life in Miami by opening a synagogue, creating a new organizational framework, and establishing relationships with other Jews. One of the elements that led to increased human habitation in South Florida was the advancement of technology that made the area more pleasant for people.

This, combined with general and Jewish expansion, made it easier for people to choose South Florida as their new home.. The Jewish people in North Carolina fought against anti-Jewish exclusionary policies as early as 1940, and continued to resist them until 1960. They lobbied for education reform that would make classrooms more inclusive and diverse, and attempted to combat the effects of institutionalized Christianity in school districts across the state. In the 1940s, there was a surge of interest in Zionism in South Florida, particularly among the Jews of Miami Beach. In this time frame, young Jewish Floridians were drawn to Zionism as it provided an escape from the horrors of World War II and a sense of hope for the future. As a result of the large number of Jewish people who moved to Miami after World War II, the population boom in this area was mostly due to retirees.

The trend became more intensified in the 1960s. The 1970s brought a period of prosperity to Miami but during this time, the city’s original Jewish communities had all but disappeared and the neighboring communities which were once predominantly occupied by Jews were now being largely populated by Cubans. Miami is known as the “Capital of Latin America” and it’s no surprise that when you combine Miami’s rich Jewish heritage, then Greater Miami is emerging as one of the most dynamic and diverse Jewish hubs in the world. From 1955 to 1957 alone, there were at least 75 Jewish organizations headquartered in Miami Beach. And in 1957, the city hosted the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

While the Jewish communities in Broward and Palm Beach Counties both saw a large growth in numbers during the 1980s, Dade County reached a high around 1980 with an estimated 230,000 Jews. Following the Mariel boatlift, a fresh generation of Cuban immigrants came in 1980. The population of South Beach began to grow later in the decade, and as more and more people saw the old art deco buildings that lined its streets, demand for them increased. Florida still remains a significant Jewish hub even in the face of the significant turn in the early 2000s when a more diverse population began to migrate to the state. This is because there are many Jewish communities throughout the state and it has one of the highest concentrations of Jews in North America.   Source: https://www.isjl.org/florida-south-florida-encyclopedia.html

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Harlan Kilstein has been a Boca Resident since 1997. He know the ins and out of Boca


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