South Florida

“South Florida”—the two words evoke a very specific vision of American Jewish life: white-haired retirees power-walking along the beach and grandfatherly types noshing on corned beef sandwiches at a deli counter. Indeed, the South Florida Jewish community is thriving, and not just among the elderly. But it wasn’t always that way. As part of the Spanish Empire, Florida was subject to the laws of the Inquisition—and Jews were forbidden from settling there—from the time it was discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513 until it was traded to Britain and the ban was lifted in 1763. Jews first lived in the northern part of the state; Jacksonville was home to the state’s largest Jewish community for many years—even until the mid-20th century.


Jews came to South Florida in pursuit of the economic opportunities made possible by Henry Flagler and his Florida East Coast Railway. When the railroad came to West Palm Beach in 1892, Jews followed to open stores; in 1896, when the railroad made its way to Miami, so, too, did the Jewish businessmen. The first permanent Jewish settler in Miami was Isidor Cohen, who had come to New York from Russia and “was attracted to Florida because of the railroad,” says Marcia Jo Zerivitz, founding executive director of the Jewish Museum of Florida-Florida International University. He followed the train tracks from West Palm Beach to Miami, where a few other Jews eventually settled—enough that they imported a rabbi from West Palm Beach to lead High Holy Day services in 1896. Miami’s first synagogue, initially called B’nai Zion and later Beth David, was founded in 1912, and Miami Beach’s first synagogue, Beth Jacob, was founded in 1929. (Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky prayed in the building’s sanctuary; today, it houses the Jewish Museum.)


Anti-Semitism was rampant until the mid-20th century. Hotels refused to serve Jews, and Jews were prohibited from living north of 5th Street in Miami Beach, a deed restriction that was less observed during the Great Depression, when “people were willing to sell to anybody, so Jews could move north of 5th,” says Zerivitz. A 1949 state law ended real estate and hotel discrimination, and Jews were eventually welcomed in the community. “During World War II, Jews were treated very hospitably, so many returned to settle,” notes Zerivitz.


The booming post-war economy drew tourists and new residents—by 1950, the Greater Miami area had 55,000 Jews, estimates Zerivitz, a number that grew as the tourism, real estate and building industries thrived. A new group also found its home in South Florida: Cuban Jews, who flocked to the state’s shores with Fidel Castro’s 1959 ascent to power. Greater Miami grew to become the largest Jewish community in South Florida, reaching an all-time high of 230,000 in 1980. Other waves of Jewish newcomers settled throughout Broward and Palm Beach Counties.


Today, South Florida is home to some 650,000 Jewish residents—making it the third-largest Jewish population in the country, after New York and Los Angeles. Hotels such as Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau, designed by Russian Jewish architect Morris Lapidus and built by Jewish hoteliers Ben Novack and Harry Mufson, have for decades catered to a Jewish clientele, providing kosher-for-Passover accommodations. Greater Miami and Broward County, South Palm Beach County and Palm Beach County are each home to Jewish communities with their own Federations and JCCs. The region buzzes with theater, music and arts: Miami’s former warehouse district teems with art galleries, and the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach hosts major shows—this year’s schedule boasts Porgy and Bess and Joan Rivers—since its opening in 1992.


Elderly and young people, year-rounders and snowbirds, all contribute to the lively Jewish life of the many towns of South Florida. Boca Raton in Palm Beach County is a major hub, with some 130,000 Jewish residents in a 2005 survey. Boynton Beach, also in Palm Beach County, has seen a boom in Jewish residents, with a 62 percent jump in numbers from 1999 to 2006. Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach, has some 234,000 Jews. From the Venezuelan and Syrian Jewish populations of Aventura to the “Little Moscow” district that stretches between Sunny Isles and Hallandale Beach, to Israelis in North Miami Beach and Hollywood, Jewish South Florida is flourishing. —Sala Levin


Isaac Bashevis Singer

1253px-Isaac_Bashevis_Singer_cropThe Nobel Prize-winning author was born in Poland and lived for a time in New York. But in 1973, he bought a place in Miami Beach, eventually living there year-round with his wife, Alma. “Nothing can beat the splendor of nature,” Singer wrote in 1989. “Every day, as I sit on the beach looking out at the ocean, each palm tree, each wave, each sea gull is still a great revelation to me. After 15 years, Miami Beach feels like home.” In 1991, the year of Singer’s death, the full-tuition Isaac Bashevis Singer Scholarship was established at the University of Miami. “Every day, as I sit on the beach looking out at the ocean, each palm tree, each wave, each sea gull is still a great revelation to me.”



Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU

Museum The museum, a partnership with Florida International University, is located in the two historic buildings of former Congregation Beth Jacob, built in 1929 and 1936. Its current exhibit, “Grower, Grocers & Gefilte Fish: A Gastronomic Look at Florida Jews & Food,” features “walking food tours” that highlight past and present Jewish-owned restaurants. // Miami Beach

Temple Israel of Greater Miami

The main sanctuary of Miami’s Temple Israel is the oldest in continuous use in Florida. Built in 1928, it has been named the 15th most notable  building by the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Tours are available by appointment. The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, four blocks away, is located on the site of Temple Israel’s home from 1922 to 1926. 

Alvin & Evelyn Gross Children’s Museum

This hands-on, interactive museum of Jewish culture, history and values features  exhibits on kibbutz life, archaeology, Jews around the world and more. Located on the Perlman Family Campus of the Soref JCC, Plantation.

Holocaust Memorial of Miami Beach

The Holocaust Memorial, dedicated in 1990, is located at 1933-1945 Meridian Avenue—coinciding with the exact years of the Holocaust. The grounds include The Sculpture of Love and Anguish, a more than four-story-high sculpture of an outstretched arm with more than 100 intertwined figures, and a Memorial Wall with thousands of names etched in black granite.

Miami Beach

Judaica Sounds Archives at Florida Atlantic University Libraries

Founded in 2002, the collection includes Yiddish theater, Israeli folk, cantorial and Sephardic music. The JSA also has the largest online digital collection of Jewish music and comedy in the world. Located in the Wimberly Library on FAU’s Boca Raton campus.


January 16–26
Film screenings in West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and Palm Beach Gardens. 

17th Annual Miami Jewish Film Festival

January 23–February 3
Film screenings throughout Miami Beach and South Beach theaters.

14th Annual David Posnack JCC Jewish Film Festival

February 1–22 at the David Posnack JCC, Davie


Nosh Fest V: South Florida’s Jewish Food Festival

Includes tasting menus, cooking demonstrations and competitions, pie-eating contest and children’s activities.
March 2, Temple Beth Emet
Cooper City

Jewish Music Festival,  David Posnack JCC

March 1–April 6, Davie

7th Annual Jewish Short Play Competition

Original Jewish-themed plays performed as stage readings.  Scripts may be submitted through January 21.
March 29-30, Adolph & Rose Levis JCC Boca Raton,

18th Annual Festival Yachad
The largest Israeli dance festival of its kind in the United States, with more than 800 dancers participating.
May 25, June 1
Michael-Ann Russell JCC Miami

2014 JCC Maccabi Games

The Adolph and Rose Levis Jewish Community Center is the host of the 2014 North American host of the annual Maccabi Games—welcoming teen delegations from North America and Israel for Olympic-style competition, cultural and social events.
August 10-15
Boca Raton