Tuesday, March 3, 2020

A Light Unto the Sunshine State

What U.S. cities enjoy the largest Jewish populations? You probably included New York, Los Angeles and Miami, which are indeed the three cities, in order, with the largest Jewish populations. Since it was on March 3, 1845, that Florida was admitted to the Union as the 27th state, Jewish Treats would like to examine the history of Jews in the Sunshine state. (See the end of the Treat for a list of U.S. cities with Jewish populations over 100,000).

Although southeast Florida is usually identified by most as the main locus of Floridian Jews (i.e. the greater Miami area and north), the first known Jews moved to Pensacola in 1763, in the state’s panhandle section. Some even believe Ponce de Leon came to Florida in 1513 with some conversos. By 1821, a few dozen Jews resided in northern Florida. Moses Levy was a lumber dealer from Morocco who built a Jewish colony in Micanopy. Despite living in the south, Levy famously announced his opposition to slavery during the Civil War. Levy’s son, David Levy Yulee, served as the first U.S. Senator from Florida. The Key West Jewish community was established in 1884 due to the shipwreck of the family of Joseph Wolfson, who were Hungarian Jews in the cigar business. Key West’s first synagogue opened in 1907.

When Florida was granted statehood, fewer than 100 Jews lived in the state, which had an overall population of 66,000. In 1857, a Jewish cemetery was consecrated in Jacksonville, in the northern sector of the state, and twenty years later, Beth El of Jacksonville became the first synagogue in Florida. By the turn of the 20th century, six congregations served the Jacksonville Jewish community.

Miami’s first synagogue, Bnai Zion, was established in 1912 as Jews began settling there. The “Great Depression” of the 1930s reduced Miami’s growing Jewish population to 12 families. But, luckily, In the 1940s, people began identifying Miami Beach as a center for night life and economic opportunity. Of the 25,000 Jews living in Florida in the 1940s, 5,000 resided in Miami. During World War II, the military took over many Florida hotels, and granted access to Jewish customers. When air conditioning became common in Florida, more people migrated there, including many Jews. By 1960, over 175,000 Jews lived in Florida.

As of 2018, Florida’s Jewish population was recorded at 621,460.

1. New York City metro area (2,151,600) – 10.6% of general population
2. Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim (617,480) – 4.6% of general population
3. Miami/Fort Lauderdale/West Palm Beach (527,750) – 8.6% of general population
4. Washington DC metro area (297,290) – 4.8% of general population
5. Chicago metro area (294,280) – 3.1% of general population
6. Philadelphia metro area (292,450) - 4.8% of general population
7. Boston metro area (257,460) – 5.3% of general population
8. San Francisco metro area (247,500) – 5.2% of general population
9. Atlanta metro area (119,800) – 2% of general population
10. Baltimore metro area (115,800) – 4.1% of general population
11. San Diego metro area (100,000) – 3% of general population

Source: “American Jewish Year Book, 2018”

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