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March 3: Jews in Florida

March 3, 2015

FloridaMapFlorida was admitted to the United States as its 27th state on this date in 1845. Fewer than a hundred Jews lived in Florida at the time (out of a white population of some 66,000) — including David Levy Yulee, one of the new state’s first two senators and the first Jew in the U.S. Senate. The Key West Jewish community started after a shipwreck in 1884, and the cigar industry, which began in Key West, involved many Jewish-Cuban partnerships. By the time of the Great Depression, some 4,000 Jews lived in Jacksonville, and by the 1940s about 5,000 — 20 percent of Florida’s Jews — lived in Miami. During World War II, restrictions on Jews in hotels, housing, and jobs began to disappear, and air-conditioning made the swamp-state far more hospitable; by 1960, more than 175,000 Jews lived in Miami, mostly along the Eastern coast, as it became a retirement location. Several synagogues in Miami and Jacksonville were bombed by racists during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Today, Florida has about 750,000 Jews, and South Florida has the largest concentration of Jews outside of Israel, 13 percent of the state’s total population — including large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Latin America. In 1995, the Jewish Museum of Florida opened in Miami Beach. In 2004, Debbie Wasserman Schultz became the first Jewish woman from Florida to be elected to the U.S. Congress.

“Miami Beach became first a Jewish city and then a Jewish joke.” —Stephen Whitfield