Miami Is Changing—So Are Miami’s Jews

Once a stronghold of Democratic-leaning retirees, South Florida is now home to one of the most religious and politically diverse Jewish communities in America.
By | Sep 20, 2023
Fall 2023, Highlights, Jewish World

The news that President Carter’s United Nations ambassador, Andrew Young, had met in New York with a PLO representative spread furiously among the mostly Jewish residents of the new high-rise condominiums along southern Florida’s Gold Coast. Nowhere in the state was there a more dependable Democratic constituency, but the condominium voters were outraged by what they saw as Carter’s disloyalty to Israel. The ace Democratic operative in the condo communities, a diminutive Jewish woman named Anne “Annie” Ackerman, quickly recognized the danger and called her White House contacts with an urgent message: “You’ve got to get someone down here.”

Ackerman had moved with her husband, Irving, an insurance executive, to the Miami area in 1969 from Chicago. She was 55. Irving was 58. They were among the thousands of Jewish northerners, mostly retirees, attracted to the bright sun, the clear ocean water and the balmy climate. “The area was brand new,” Ackerman later told a reporter. “Everybody was coming from someplace else. I don’t think there were two native Floridians in the whole area.” Unlike many of her fellow Jewish transplants, however, Ackerman was less interested in leisure than in political work. Ackerman’s father, a Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrant, had been a garment worker and union activist. At the age of five, she joined him on a picket line, and politicking soon became her life’s work. She had honed her skills canvassing under the tutelage of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, the legendary big city boss. “She loved to organize,” recalls her son, Allen Ackerman. “She would organize the PTA. She would organize whatever there was to organize. If there was a cause, she would go after it.”

In October 1979, Annie Ackerman’s cause was to make sure that Jimmy Carter did not blow his advantage among Jewish voters in the Miami area. A passionate supporter of Israel, Ackerman was herself concerned about Young’s PLO encounter. According to an account in The Washington Post, the White House responded to Ackerman’s plea by dispatching its Middle East peace envoy, Robert Strauss, with the mission of mending fences with Miami Jews. Strauss, himself Jewish, knew exactly where he needed to go—straight to Ackerman’s own Point East Condominium in North Miami Beach, where she had assembled 1,500 of the building’s 2,000 residents. Speaking energetically from a stage decorated with plastic palms and Israeli and American flags, Strauss urged his audience to “look at the record” of Carter’s foreign policy and trust him to defend Israel. “We really needed that,” Ackerman told the Post reporter after the meeting.

A Jewish candidate for the U.S. Congress, Larry Smith, competing in 1982 in a district in northern Dade County, considered the Jewish vote so crucial that he felt compelled during his campaign to distribute pictures of his son’s bar mitzvah, lest someone assume from his surname that he was not actually Jewish.

Ackerman herself never ran for office, but she was arguably one of the top political organizers in modern U.S. history, with a record that remains the envy of Florida activists today. Starting in her own condominium building, Ackerman enlisted other Jewish women as volunteers, with the assignment of making sure their fellow residents voted. Every floor had its own captain. The condominium complexes in North Miami Beach were so large that many could qualify as “vertical precincts,” with voting booths set up in lobbies and meeting rooms that could accommodate a large crowd. Working with local Democratic clubs, Ackerman would invite candidates to make their case, or she would make it for them, with “a big smile and a gift for gab,” according to her son.

At just 4‘11‘‘, she was a small woman. “But you’d never know it,” says her daughter Kay Fleisher. “Her mouth made up for it.” Fleisher recalls her as “an amazing orator. She would go from condo to condo and give her spiel, and people would hang on every word.” Ackerman even had her own political machine, modeled after the Daley operation in Chicago. She had her volunteers distribute cards with the names of her favored candidates and instructions on how to mark their ballots. They also kept tabs on who had voted and who hadn’t. The floor captains competed to see who could deliver the highest turnout on Election Day, and they routinely got 90 percent or more. Nowhere was Ackerman more effective than in her own Point East Condominium complex. She once claimed that 99 percent of the residents were Jewish, 98 percent were over 65 years old, and 95 percent were Democrats. Local commentators dubbed Annie Ackerman the “Condo Queen” and her army of Jewish volunteers the “Condo Commandos.”

The photo was taken by Andy Sweet, a young Jewish photographer who spent time observing and recording scenes around South Miami from 1977 to 1982. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Andy Sweet Archive, The Miami Beach Project 1977-1982)

Political analyst Alan Ehrenhalt, writing in his 1984 edition of Politics in America, estimated that in the 17th Congressional District alone, which included Ackerman’s North Miami Beach community, condominium residents could supply Democrats with 30,000 votes. This would create a margin often large enough to secure a Democratic victory in races across South Florida, from Miami to Palm Beach. Democratic politicians lined up to be seen with Ackerman. Former Florida Governors Reubin Askew and Bob Graham (later a U.S. senator) were among her close friends. She hosted then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill at a soirée in her apartment. Walter Mondale came to see her during one of his campaigns, leaving her a picture of their meeting inscribed, “To Annie, My Best Love.” In 1986, then-Senator Joe Biden was the keynote speaker at a country club dinner honoring Ackerman. A Miami Herald photograph from the event shows Biden on his knees at Ackerman’s side, tenderly holding her hand. She was dressed in a white gown, with a white feather boa and one of her trademark hats.

“She’s a legend, even in presidential politics,” Biden said at the dinner. “When you talk Florida primary, people say, if you get Annie, you’ve got it half done.” Biden would launch a presidential campaign of his own a year later. Marshall Breger, a veteran Republican who in the 1980s tried to rally Jewish support for his party in South Florida, says such efforts inevitably stalled when they encountered the “condo firewall” built and maintained by Ackerman and her commandos. In her honor, the Florida legislature in 1987 designated a two-mile stretch of Biscayne Boulevard near her condo as “Anne Ackerman Boulevard.” By the time of her death two years later, politicians from across the spectrum were giving her much of the credit for her party’s string of victories. Annie Ackerman’s political machine did not long survive her. In the years that followed, Democrats continued to win elections in Florida with Jewish support, but the task became more difficult. The Jewish community was changing, and Jewish Democrats were losing some of their legendary clout.

The strong attachment to Greater Miami among U.S. Jews dates from the period following World War II. Thousands of Jewish service members were among the half million men and women who had spent time at an Army Air Corps training center in Miami Beach, considered by recruits to be “the most beautiful boot camp in America.” Word of Miami’s charms spread quickly, and the postwar years brought a large migration of veterans to South Florida, including many Jews from the New York metropolitan area. These Jews and those who followed them generally settled close to each other, determined to maintain their heritage and eat, celebrate and worship within walking distance of their residences, as they always had. They were concentrated in South Beach, the area of Miami Beach below Fifth Street, originally because of antisemitic covenants that restricted Jews from settling further north. The covenants were prohibited in 1949, but for years thereafter South Beach remained the center of Jewish life in the Miami area.

The photo was taken by Andy Sweet, a young Jewish photographer who spent time observing and recording scenes around South Miami from 1977 to 1982. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Andy Sweet Archive, The Miami Beach Project 1977-1982)

Many of the new arrivals came from urban neighborhoods dominated by immigrants from Eastern Europe who had lost relatives in the Holocaust or were survivors themselves. It was a profound relief for them to find in sunny Miami Beach a place where they could live joyously in comfort and safety. For the most part they were not wealthy, and in the pre-condominium days many settled in cheap, sometimes shabby hotels or apartments along the beach, where they were content to sit on the porches or out front on folding lawn chairs. They played cards and read Yiddish newspapers, they exercised or went swimming in the early morning surf, and they gathered in nearby parks, where those with mandolins or guitars would play old Yiddish folk songs or theater music, and everyone would sing along. They ate in cheap cafeterias and lined up to get good seats in vaudeville houses for an evening of Yiddishkeit.

Among those drawn to this scene was Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish storyteller, who first visited Miami Beach in 1948 and came again year after year. “For me, a vacation in Miami Beach was a chance to be among my own people,” Singer recalled in a 1989 magazine essay. Sitting in a hotel lobby, “I’d hear all kinds of Yiddish dialects. I could tell where they came from. And I saw them playing cards and making jokes that I had already heard many times before…Here the sound of the Old World was as alive as ever. What I learned is that many people from the shtetlach, which I knew so well, came here.”

Some of the newcomers were affiliated with the Workmen’s Circle, a secular organization founded in the early 20th century to advocate for Jewish immigrants. Others were more religious: On the Sabbath, hotel card rooms or social halls would sometimes be converted into a shul for prayer and worship. During the day, men and women alike donned swimsuits, some of them skimpy, many of them garish, and lounged poolside or on the beach. The energy of the community was memorably documented by a young Jewish photographer from Miami named Andy Sweet, who hung out daily around the hotels and parks. His portraits showed the retirees and vacationers proudly displaying their weathered, well-tanned bodies or colorful outfits for dinner or dancing, always smiling. There is little indication in Sweet’s photographs of any trials his subjects had known, except for those whose arms bore tattoos.

The photo was taken by Andy Sweet, a young Jewish photographer who spent time observing and recording scenes around South Miami from 1977 to 1982. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Andy Sweet Archive, The Miami Beach Project 1977-1982)

The 1970 census showed that more than half the Miami Beach population was over 64 years of age. It was variously dubbed “the new old folks’ capital of the United States,” “Varicose Beach” or “God’s Waiting Room.” Nearly 80 percent of the residents were Jewish. The Jewish retirees had managed to establish “the Beach” almost entirely as a place of their own, a reflection not of their animosity toward non-Jews but of their instinct for self-preservation and protection as a community that had known more than its share of suffering. In his 2007 documentary film about the Jewish retirees of South Beach, Where Neon Goes to Die, director David Weintraub notes, “They fought off assimilation and immersed themselves in their music, dance, theater and literature.

They were the last keepers of the flame.”

Over the next decade, commercial development in South Beach resulted in the closure of many low-budget hotels, while others fell into disrepair. The locus of Jewish life shifted north to the condominium communities sprouting up in Surfside, Bal Harbour, North Miami Beach or even farther up the coast to communities such as Boca Raton and Palm Beach. The changes were accelerated by a surge in drug trafficking and the arrival in 1980 of 125,000 refugees from Cuba. In November 1981, Time magazine hyped the troubles, noting, “An epidemic of violent crime, a plague of illicit drugs and a tidal wave of refugees has slammed into South Florida with the destructive power of a hurricane.” A year later, photographer Andy Sweet was himself a crime victim, when, at the age of 28, he was stabbed to death in his apartment by men allegedly searching for cocaine. In October 1982, The New York Times reported that the remaining elderly population in South Beach, almost all of which was Jewish, “huddle[s] in frailty and fear.” Many would soon pass away, weakened by age and infirmity. Others would move. The opening chapter of the Jewish story in South Florida was coming to a close.

From the beginning, the South Florida Jews were reliable Democratic voters. Many of the retirees who settled in South Beach in the 1950s and 1960s were former garment workers or teachers, living largely on fixed incomes. They were able to retire at a relatively early age because of Social Security and union-negotiated pensions, and they credited the Democratic Party for those benefits. They were also deeply patriotic, recognizing that the United States had been generous in offering refuge after the war, albeit belatedly. Given those factors, they voted in large numbers and overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, Jewish if possible. The first Jewish representative to the Florida legislature from South Florida was elected in 1963, and many more followed.

Then-Senator Joe Biden with Anne “Annie” Ackerman, at a dinner honoring her in June 1986. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Miami Herald)

Elaine Bloom, a transplanted New Yorker who led her chapter of the League of Women Voters, was among them, elected in 1974 as one of six at-large delegates from her district in the northeast corner of Dade County, as Miami-Dade was called at the time. All six—three men and three women—were Jewish, and all six were Democrats. Bloom says it didn’t require much of a campaign effort at the time to court Jewish voters. “Everything was Democratic,” she says. “There were no Republicans.” A Jewish candidate for the U.S. Congress, Larry Smith, competing in 1982 in a district in northern Dade County, considered the Jewish vote so crucial that he felt compelled during his campaign to distribute pictures of his son’s bar mitzvah, lest someone assume from his surname that he was not actually Jewish. Ann Lewis, the political director of the Democratic National Committee in the early 1980s and a part-time Miami resident herself during those years, says Democratic fortunes in South Florida had less to do with persuasion than with organizing. “It was 90 percent about turnout,” she says. Though Jewish voters were a relatively small minority of the electorate, she notes, they could swing an election if they all voted, because they were almost all Democrats, as Annie Ackerman understood so clearly.

The Miami Jewish Federation estimates that today one of three Miami Jews comes from outside the United States, the highest foreign-born share of any Jewish community across the country.

The subsequent weakening of Jewish political power was unavoidable, in the view of Joe Geller, a Miami lawyer, former state legislator and chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party from 1989 to 2000. “It’s not like all the Jews down here said, ‘We’re tired of having a lot of influence and helping run things. Let’s all stop,’” Geller says. “People moved. There were demographic changes.” Having been heavily concentrated first in Miami Beach and then in the condo complexes up the Miami coast, the Jewish community dispersed further and diversified, reducing its cohesiveness. While the overall Jewish population in South Florida continued to grow, newcomers were favoring new retirement villages in neighboring Broward and Palm Beach counties. Sally Heyman, who represented her heavily Jewish district in North Miami Beach, first on her local city council and then in the state legislature and the county commission, watched the income and age profile of the condominium population in her district change during her 35 years in office, which ended in 2022. “It used to be that the people [in the condominiums] had some affluence,” she says, “and they were mostly seniors, like 55 and older. Now you have entire families squished in.”

The new condo residents were also less Jewish. The towers once organized by Ackerman attracted large numbers of Cubans who had fled the Castro dictatorship. The two communities learned to live with one another, but some of the early Cuban-Jewish tensions were evident in an August 1989 congressional contest to replace Representative Claude Pepper, who had died a few weeks earlier. Pepper, a liberal Democrat and advocate for the elderly, had served as Florida’s senator from 1936 to 1951, and had represented the Miami area in the House since 1963. The race pitted a Cuban-American Republican, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, against a Jewish Democrat, Gerald Richman. An account of the race in The New York Times said Cuban Americans “saw their chance to capture their first congressional seat. But the more that Hispanic residents spoke of the seat as theirs, the more non-Hispanic voters came to regard it as their own last stand.” Richman, who supported legislation to make English the official national language, repeatedly cited a need to maintain “an American seat,” which Ros-Lehtinen denounced as bigoted. In a Miami Herald poll, 28 of 29 Cuban-American voters surveyed backed Ros-Lehtinen, while 24 of 25 Jewish voters supported Richman. Ros-Lehtinen won, and Miami’s Cuban-American voters have demonstrated their political clout in numerous Miami elections since then, slowly pushing Miami to the right and helping to erode the region’s Jewish electoral advantage.

One of the legendary buildings in Miami Beach is a condominium on 41st Street, in the area known as Middle Beach, just north of South Beach. Long known as Tower 41, the building was erected in 1974, part of the great condo-construction era that created new housing for the Jewish influx from the north. Its residents identified largely as Reform, Conservative or secular, like most Jews at the time in Miami Beach. Today, Tower 41 and the area around 41st Street is predominantly Orthodox, exemplifying the shift to Orthodoxy among Miami Jews in general.

The neighborhood is zoned for synagogues, and there are several within walking distance, most of them Orthodox. Tower 41’s residents even have their own. Two social halls, where the building’s Israel Bonds Committee hosted highly successful cocktail receptions and fundraising dinners in the 1970s and 1980s, have been converted into full-time shuls where prayer services are held three times a day. The building has Shabbat elevators, the restaurant is now 100 percent kosher, and the weekly Shabbat dinners are offered on a prepaid basis for those residents who do not use money on the Sabbath. The lobby has been renovated around a classy retro 1960s theme, and ads for the building describe it as “a luxurious Kosher resort community,” featuring “Miami Beach’s Premier Kosher Event Space.” Not every resident was thrilled by the transformation. One frequent visitor recalls her elderly stepmother attempting to enter the building’s pool for her regular 6 a.m. swim, only to be told that a male resident, an Orthodox rabbi, was insisting that the pool have separate swimming times for men and women.

Just four Chabad synagogues existed in Miami in 1994. Twenty years later, that number had grown to 23.

The growth of Orthodox Judaism in South Florida is linked in part to the ethnic transformation of Miami’s Jewish community. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation estimates that one in three Miami Jews comes from outside the United States, the highest foreign-born share of any Jewish community across the country. Some of the earliest immigrants were Jews from Cuba, who fled the island along with so many others. The Jewish Cubans are now such prominent members of the Miami community as to warrant their own moniker: “Jubans.” Of all the immigrant Jews in the Miami area today, about half come from Latin American countries or Israel, with another large share from countries in the former Soviet Union, mainly Russia. There is also a concentration of Jews with roots in Arab countries. As the Yiddish-speaking Jews in South Beach did 50 years ago, the ethnic communities have typically clustered in their own neighborhoods. Many Israeli Jews have settled near Surfside. Russian Jews are concentrated in Sunny Isles, a bit farther to the north, while Venezuelan and Syrian Jews have settled in nearby Aventura.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at The Shul, a synagogue in Surfside, Florida, after signing two bills in June 2021. Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, leader of The Shul, is on the far right. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Ashkenazi Jews do not dominate as they once did. The Sephardic share of Miami’s overall Jewish population today is the highest of any major Jewish community across the United States, and many of the newcomers, religious or not, belong to Orthodox synagogues. A 2014 survey of Miami Jews carried out by Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami demographer who focuses on the Jewish community, found that 43 percent of those Jewish households in Miami that reported a synagogue membership were in Orthodox congregations, almost double the number from a decade earlier and the second highest Orthodox share among Jewish communities across the country. (A new survey will be carried out in 2024.) The percentage of households reporting Reform or Conservative memberships had meanwhile dropped significantly below the national average. Of the 68 Miami synagogues currently identified by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, 50 are Orthodox, up from 30 in 1994.

The increase is due largely to the establishment of new synagogues affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement, which has boomed in Miami in recent years. Just four Chabad synagogues existed in Miami in 1994. Twenty years later, that number had grown to 23, and many more have opened since then. Chabad has been particularly attuned to newcomers’ needs, often offering additional prayer services according to their minhag, or custom.

Chabad was drawn to Miami originally because of the metropolitan area’s mix of secular and liberal Jews, whom it believed were ripe for outreach. In 1969, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, then head of the movement and usually known simply as “the Rebbe,” dispatched one of his sharpest yeshiva graduates, Sholom Lipskar, to Miami Beach. Lipskar’s efforts ran into resistance from some Conservative, Reform and secular Jews. “It was a community that not only had zero Judaism but an anti-feeling—against Orthodoxy, against traditional Judaism, against what I consider to be the honest truth, the Torah way of life,” Lipskar says. “Most people, their initial reaction was, ‘Who asked you to come here? Why are you upsetting the status quo here? We don’t need you. Go back to where you came from.’” But Lipskar persisted, and the Chabad movement in Miami gained thousands of adherents, including many wealthy Jews.

Lipskar himself now leads The Shul, a prominent Chabad Lubavitch synagogue in Surfside serving more than 700 families. Opened in 1994, his synagogue was extensively expanded in 2016. The building’s elegant social hall, used for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and other social events, features all-glass walls about 40 feet high and a glass ceiling. The Shul even created a new Sephardic-style sanctuary and offers a daily Sephardic minyan. The synagogue’s slogan is “Over The Top.”

Not everyone is pleased by Chabad’s dominating presence in the Miami area. As the North Miami Beach representative on the county commission, Sally Heyman was responsible for managing the issues that came with Chabad’s growth in her district, once a Reform stronghold. “We have had Chabads cropping up all over the place,” she says. “Every time I turn around there’s another house being converted into a temple. They have a little shul, then it gets to be a bigger shul. Then they want to do day care. Then they want to do primary grades.” Heyman, who was raised Reform, says she did her best to accommodate their needs. When a storm knocked out power on Shabbat, she would find volunteers to go to Orthodox homes to flip circuit breakers or provide food. She made sure that curbs were cut on all the sidewalks to assist families walking with their strollers to their local synagogues. “If you want everybody to coexist,” she says, “you have to work it out.”

The ethnic and religious changes in Miami’s Jewish community have naturally had political implications, with the community becoming more conservative in recent years. In his 2014 study, Ira Sheskin found that of nine major Jewish communities around the United States, Miami-area Jews were the most likely to be Republican. The Jewish retirees who 50 years ago identified with the New Deal policies of the Democratic Party have been replaced in part by immigrant Jews who have lived under authoritarian leftist governments. The anti-Castro Cubans were the first, but they were followed by Jews from Nicaragua, Venezuela and Peru. Russian Jews came with an intimate knowledge of Soviet Communism. When Republican politicians accuse their Democratic opponents of supporting a “socialist” agenda, the charge resonates among many foreign-born Miami Jews, regardless of how exaggerated it is, says Jacob Solomon, president of the Miami Jewish Federation. “You come from Cuba, you take that allegation seriously,” says Solomon, reflecting on 40 years of experience at the Federation. “You come from Venezuela, you take it seriously. It’s not a laughing matter to them.”

Left: 1970 Florida gubernatorial election results map by county. Right: 2022 Florida gubernatorial election results map by county. (Miami-Dade County is circled.) (Photo Credit: Ali Zifan (CC by-sa 4.0) / Carhles, CC by 4.0)

Another factor working against the Democrats is the growth of the Orthodox population in the Miami area. A 2020 study by the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of Orthodox Jews in the United States identify with the Republican Party, while an approximately equal share of Reform or Conservative Jews lean Democratic, so the changing religious profile of the Miami community soon strengthened the Republican position. The extent of the Republican shift became starkly evident in the November 2022 elections. Governor Ron DeSantis took a wide majority of the vote in Miami-Dade County, the first time since Jeb Bush’s election in 2002 that Miami voters backed a Republican gubernatorial candidate. Republicans also won three of the four congressional races in the county and 15 of Miami-Dade’s 22 state legislative seats. Of the winning candidates, none is Jewish, an outcome not seen in Miami since the early 1960s. Across Florida, a Fox News exit poll suggested that 45 percent of Jewish voters supported DeSantis in his reelection bid.

Jewish Democrats cite two explanations for the 2022 Republican surge among Jewish voters in the Miami area. One is Israel. Former President Donald Trump scored points with many Jews in 2017 by declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel and then moving the U.S. Embassy there the following year, and Governor DeSantis has portrayed himself as an even stronger defender of the current Israeli government. Such a stance evidently brings rewards. In his 2014 study, Ira Sheskin found that Miami Jews who considered themselves “extremely attached” to Israel were more likely to lean Republican than those who were less attached.

Members of the Miami Sephardic Club at an event in July 2023. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Miami Sephardic Club)

The second explanation for growing pro-Republican views is school vouchers. Many Orthodox Jews feel religiously obligated to send their children to Jewish day schools, and given that they tend to have large families, the tuition expense for the less wealthy can be overwhelming. In 2021, DeSantis signed legislation authorizing vouchers to some families with incomes of nearly $100,000. A month later, the governor was warmly received by Lipskar at The Shul in Surfside. A further expansion of the voucher program in March 2023 means that all Florida students, regardless of family income, are entitled to apply for a school voucher worth about $8,000. Florida now has the largest and most expensive voucher program in the country. Depending on how many families apply, it could cost Florida taxpayers $2 billion or more per year. The program has proved popular among many Jewish voters, even as it has angered those who are strong supporters of public schools.

To be sure, the Jewish shift to the Republican side can be overstated. Sheskin estimates that about 53 percent of Miami Jews still lean Democratic. But the Democratic share has shrunk, he says, and even a few votes matter in a close election. Their stinging defeat in the 2022 midterm elections left many Florida Democrats demoralized, especially those Jewish Democrats in Miami who had long enjoyed great success in politics. One of the most shocking 2022 upsets came after Democrat Joe Geller had to vacate his state legislative seat because of term limits. The district, between Miami Beach and Aventura, has a large Jewish population and had consistently gone for Democrats, but Geller’s designated successor and protégé, Jordan Leonard, lost narrowly to the Republican candidate, Fabián Basabe, a former reality TV star. In his 2018 gubernatorial race, DeSantis lost the district (with slightly different boundaries) by 20 points, but he won it by three points in November 2022.

A High Holiday service in 2022 at the Cuban Hebrew Congregation of Miami. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Cuban Hebrew Congregation)

Sally Heyman, the former legislator, quit politics altogether after 2022, offended by what she saw as the mean-spirited attacks from DeSantis and his allies on any institution that embraced diversity, equity and inclusion values and by what she viewed as the complacency of her fellow Miami Jews. “When I ran for office, we focused on helping people,” Heyman says, “but now they just run against things. They have banned books and removed African-American studies. And for me the worst thing is that people aren’t speaking out as a Jewish community. What will happen when it comes to Holocaust education?” Heyman, 68, has since turned her attention to volunteer activities, focusing on accommodations for visually impaired children and animal welfare. “I was proud to be a public servant,” she says. “But now I don’t tell people I was a representative or commissioner. I just say, ‘I’m Sally.’” Sharing her sentiments is her former legislative colleague Elaine Bloom, the pioneering Jewish woman in the Florida House, now 86. Asked if she was disappointed by the 2022 results, Bloom responds, “Absolutely. Are you kidding? Things are worse here than ever.”

An Orthodox Jewish woman and her child at a Miami beach in 2010. (Photo credit: David Berkowitz, CC BY 2.0)

Though disheartened by Jordan Leonard’s defeat, former state legislator Joe Geller takes a more optimistic view, saying the proper lessons from 2022 have been learned. “We hit rock bottom,” he says, “but we’ll come back.” Geller, whose wife is Cuban American, believes the Democrats in South Florida did a poor job of responding to Hispanic concerns about socialism. “We allowed ourselves to be on the defensive,” he says. “We haven’t done the right things, and the messaging has been worse.” Having once led his party in Miami-Dade, Geller says the Democrats can win again in South Florida if they show more respect for Hispanic voters. Jews need to be part of this change as well, he says. “Some of my brothers and sisters in the Jewish community didn’t necessarily like hearing Spanish spoken all around them. Some of them fell for the same bullshit that other people fell for.”

Those Miami Jews who look beyond the political significance of their community’s evolution over the past decades see a positive picture emerging. Sheskin, who has been tracking Miami Jews since 1982, says when he started his studies, “We had tens and tens of thousands of lower-middle-class elderly widows. Since then, we have moved from being simply a place for New York Jews to come and spend their last few years to a place that’s highly international.” Traditional markers of Jewish community success measure high in Miami, he says. In his most recent survey, Sheskin found that, compared to U.S. Jews generally, Miami Jews were more likely to say that being Jewish is very important to them and were more likely to marry within their faith. Just 16 percent of the Miami respondents had a non-Jewish spouse, compared to 61 percent for Jews in a similar survey across the country.

Jacob Solomon, the Miami Jewish Federation president, also sees the positives. In April 2023, he led a Federation delegation of 800 Miami Jews on a trip to Israel for the 75th anniversary of Israeli independence. The group needed 20 buses to get around, each bus with a customized itinerary. Several were designated for Spanish speakers. Solomon came away delighted. “When I go to meetings with my fellow federation executives, I see I have a comparatively easy job [as a Jewish leader],” he says. “Miami is a very ‘Jew-y’ Jewish community. We may not all be synagogue observant or keep kosher, but there’s an intensity to this Jewish community that for somebody in my business is really inspiring.”

It’s not the same kind of intensity, of course, that was evident a half century ago among the Jews of the Yiddish-infused South Beach community. Their generation was singular, scarred by trauma others could not know and bonded by stories from another time, far away. The South Beach neighborhood today would be unrecognizable to the retirees who once gathered there. “This area has become the most expensive part of Miami Beach,” says Susan Gladstone, the director of the Jewish Museum of Florida, which is housed in a synagogue on Collins Avenue that dates from 1929. “A lot of the Jews here today are buying apartments for $10 or $15 million.” The arrival of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in January 2021 coincided with a new wave of Orthodox Jewish families from New York and New Jersey, lured to the Miami area by the climate, low taxes and subsidized religious education. Though Yiddish may have largely disappeared as a community language, Miami Jews now speak Hebrew, Spanish, Russian and even Arabic. No longer are they a solid Democratic bloc. Miami has a new hybrid character—one Annie Ackerman and her commandos would no doubt find more challenging to organize but also more vibrant.

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Opening picture: Courtesy of Andy Sweet Archive, The Miami Beach Project 1977-1982

5 thoughts on “Miami Is Changing—So Are Miami’s Jews

  1. Robert S. April MD says:

    The article on the “Jubans” would not be different if written about so many other modern orthodox, and politically diverse, religious Jewish communities over America, and that includes those in New York. What I see is that all these communities of very nice people, have developed a view of modern Jewish life and Israel that reflects an increasingly, self-involved, limited view of political reality in Israel itself and of their own communities as well.

    Their interaction with the Jewish State involves infrequent visits, often on Jewish holidays with community-based tours. They limit heir experience to staying in luxurious conditions in Jerusalem (and other city) hotels, without contact with, or knowledge of the status quo of other Israeli areas, groups, and no contact of any meaningful kind with Israeli Arabs or Palestinians. Often without significant contact with Israeli Jews of Ethiopian or Moroccan origin.

    They have no interest in getting close to the growing dissatisfaction of so many Israelis with the current political conflicts and the changing temperament of Israeli politics.

    I believe that fingers should be pointed at American congregtional rabbis who make it their policy not to discuss politics from the bima. Their indifference (or apathy) to the unrest underlying the daily political demonstrations in Israel’s evening streets is unforgivable because we are witnessing a transformation of our one Jewish state into a protofascist, theocratic state of governance that is no longer open to the opinion of “The Other”.

    Many Israelis are leaving to live in other countries — including Germany. The French exodus that was so popular in the past few years is witnessing the return to France of significant numbers of olim. Young American Conservative Jews are doubting whether Israel of the future will be a homeland for desperate Jews living under oppressive regimes 50 years from now.

    Many young Jews in Israel and outside fear the hate-bound messages spewing from the mouths of those religious figures who are enjoying power in the present coalition under Netanyahu’s coalition government. They are frightened by violent remarks toward the Palestinian “problem” and the invoking of old punitive laws to non-Jews that favor Jews in a legal conflict.

    I would direct the naive reader’s attention to the provocations uttered by Rabbi David Lior, who sees Amalek lurking in the facies of every non Jew in Israel. The Biblical utterance to erase the memory of Amalek from the memory of man is a “how-to” directive for violence against non-Jewish citizens of the State.

    Rabbi Jonathan Silver has written that the Twentieth Century was the time for Israel to establish its being the Jewish State in the Middle East. That has happened, baruch Hashem, but the Twenty-First is to be that in which we define who is and what is a Jew. It is also to ponder the kind of Jew we want to be and the kind of land in which we want a Jewish state to flourish as the purveyor of light unto the peoples.

    It is time for the leaders of our Jewish communities, the rabbinate, to attend to the optics of that light and to assure us that its purity is undiminished in this new Century of Jewish history. That next link in the sacred chain will include the lives of our children and theirs.
    May they be more like Abraham and Sarah, Issac and Rachel, than like the right wing rabbis who preach hate and violence rather than justice and mercy.


  2. charles cole says:

    I wonder what she would say about Biden today

    1. Peyton Collier-Kerr says:

      She’d be thrilled he isn’t Trump.

  3. Davida Brown says:

    Abram believed God and He counted it as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6) Abram became Abraham…father of many nations. May the Jewish residents of Miami and elsewhere become as Abraham…believing God. That would eliminate much animosity and conflict! It’s not about religion…it’s about HIM!

  4. JANET F KATZ says:

    First of all, the captions of the photos are incorrect where they state that the pictures are taken in “South Miami.” They were taken in South Beach, part of Miami Beach, a totally different area from South Miami, which is of course a part of Miami, a different city. That also is what annoys me about this article: it assumes all the Jews in Miami Dade live in Miami Beach and further north. I grew up Jewish in Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami, and there were plenty of Jews there and in southwest Dade County such as the Palmetto area and still are. My parents moved there in 1948, NOT to South Beach, along with many people in the post war era. I think the author has a very narrow view of the growth of the Jewish population in Miami-Dade. Temple Beth Am in that area was the largest Reform synagogue south of Atlanta. I know that Miami BEACH has become Orthodox but there are still Reform and Conservative Jews in MIAMI, which is a different city but still part of Miami-Dade County. The author does not seem to distinguish between the two. The mayor of Miami Dade County is the sister-in-law of a friend of mine from Coral Gables High School and Susan Gladstone, mentioned in the article, is also a friend from high school. Her stepfather was the rabbi of another very big Reform synagogue in MIAMI (not Miami Beach), Temple Israel.

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