Long before the millenials and hipsters took over South Beach and the restored art deco hotels, and before an influx of Hispanic immigration turned Miami into a bustling city of international commerce and multi-lingual inhabitants, Miami, for a time, was a major center of Jewish life. That may sound self-evident. What would Miami be without Jews? But the reality is that there has been a steady exodus of Jews from Miami since the crime-riddled 1970s, many leaving to Boca Raton and Aventura, just north of the city.
And what was known about the Jews of Miami was often caricatures about aging grandparents and snowbirds playing mahjong at the Fontainebleau or Eden Roc hotels, or the stock of Jewish comedians since the 1950s. That’s why a visit to the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, is a worthwhile excursion, opening a window to a long and fascinating heritage. Located in two adjoining restored synagogues on Washington Street, just off South Beach, the small museum is cultural gem, displaying the arc of Jewish life over 250 years.
Indeed, the core exhibit is titled, “Mosaic: Jewish Life in Florida.” Since the 18th Century arrival of conversos (hidden Jews in the Spanish controlled territory) there has been Jewish presence in South Florida. The exhibit, with over 600 archival documents and photographs, is particularly engaging on the subjects of immigration and diversity of the community.
There were only about 5000 Jews in Miami in the prewar period. The population soared after WWII with an infusion of immigrants, the invention of air-conditioning, as well as a more open-minded attitude toward Jews.
The core exhibit is strong when it comes to breaking stereotypes, featuring Jewish contribution to Florida’s culture. One section called “Land of Opportunity,” tells the stories of Florida’s “Jewish crackers,” featuring farmers and ranchers. Military and political service is also documented, with over 100 notables profiled including Jewish mayors, judges, and politicians. David Levy Yulee, who built the first railroad across the state and was a key force in Florida achieving statehood in 1845, is one of the characters featured in the exhibit.
The exhibition doesn’t shy away from airing the harsher realities of Jewish history in the area, namely open discrimination and anti-Semitism. In the early 20th Century Jews could only live south of 5th Street in Miami, and Mt. Sinai Hospital was established because Jewish doctors returning from WW II could not get positions in Dade County hospitals. As late as the 1950s, local hotels advertised their “restricted clientele,” (read: gentiles only). One sign in the exhibit displays the not-so-subtle bigotry, a hotel advertisement that reads, “Always a view, never a Jew.”
Immigration is also an important theme of the exhibit. There is a section on the influx of of Jews from Cuba who fled after the revolution of 1959, and how these immigrants brought a surge of vitality to the local community.
One section shows the local impact of the Holocaust, and not only by the influx of survivors. There is the disgraceful episode in 1939 of the US government refusing to allow Jewish refugees aboard the SS St Louis to disembark in Miami, only to be returned to Europe and the Nazi genocide.
The museum also chronicles the Jewish gangsters who a part of the South Florida scene. Perhaps the most famous was Meyer Lansky, notorious financier for the mob, whose name is on a stained glass window donated to the synagogue-turned-museum.
The museum, now under the administration of Florida International University, offers a fascinating window into one of the most iconic, often satirized, but certainly historic Jewish communities of the United States. We recommend visiting it on your next trip to Florida.
Harry D. Wall has a long career in journalism, advocacy and consulting. Most recently, he has taken a late-career move and began making documentary films about Jewish heritage and communities around the globe. His blog, Jewish Discoveries, is a travelogue of Jewish heritage and contemporary life around the world. You can keep up to date with his travels on the blog or Facebook.com/JDiscoveries.