The Jewish impact on Miami Beach
They were barred from owning property on Miami Beach. They were barred from entering hotels on Miami Beach. And they were barred from joining country clubs on Miami Beach.
Yet they ended up becoming one of the most powerful, influential and philanthropic ethnic groups on Miami Beach.
They are, of course, the Jews.
Despite this flagrant discrimination – or perhaps because of it – they ended up dominating Miami Beach politics for several decades. And although they are no longer the largest ethnic group on Miami Beach, Jewish politicians have made up a majority on the city commission since World War II.
Even in 2001, when Jose Smith was elected to the seven-member city commission, making it a majority Hispanic for the first in the city’s history, it was still majority Jewish because Smith was a Cuban Jew.
“He belonged to both groups so we used to say the commission was really three-and-a-half Jewish and three-and-a-half Cuban,” said Abe Lavender, a sociologist professor at Florida International University and president of the Miami Beach Historical Association.
And today, the city commission is still majority Jewish, even though Miami Beach is majority Hispanic and the city elected its first Hispanic (and female) mayor in 2007.
And even then, Cuban American Mayor Matti Herrera Bower is married to a Jew, if that makes any difference.
Today, Miami Beach is one of the most liberal municipalities in the county, a trademark passed down from the previous generations of Jews who turned Miami Beach from a conservative anti-Semitic WASPY enclave into one of the most liberal, multicultural communities in the country
Miami Beach City Commissioner Jerry Libbin, who is Jewish, marches with security guards who are trying to unionize on the beach.
In fact, a recent study indicated that 61 percent of American Jews are registered democrats while only 14 percent are registered republicans, said Ira M. Sheskin, Director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami.
Even among the more conservative Orthodox Jews, only 24 percent were found to be registered republicans, he said.
“Republicans were trying to say that Jews were becoming more republican, but we found that just wasn’t the case,” he said.
David Dermer, who stepped down as mayor in 2007 after two terms, was the 15th Jewish mayor to have served Miami Beach since 1943. He remembers campaigning as a child with his father, Jay Dermer, who was mayor during the late 1960s.
“There was a lot more emphasis on the street level campaigns,” he said. “I remember dad campaigning with the porch sitters, he would sit and talk to them one on one.”
The porch sitters were the elderly Jews who had relocated to Miami Beach from New York City beginning in the 1940s.
“A lot of these porch sitters had worked in the Garment District in New York City,” he said. “They were heavily involved in activism up there. They were involved in union organizing. They were involved in the socialist movement up there.
“They continued that activism when they got to Miami Beach. I remember people speaking on boxes in parks. I remember people organizing rallies. It was a very exciting time.”
It was 1967 and Jay Dermer, an attorney who had moved down from New York City, was running against incumbent Elliot Roosevelt, son of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many expected Roosevelt to soundly defeat the political newcomer because of his namesake and the fact that he supported many of the social programs implemented by his father, something very appealing to the elderly Jewish population living on the beach at the time.
But the election was held a month after the Six-Day War, which was when Israel demonstrated its military prowess by defeating Egypt, Jordan and Syria in less than a week. So Dermer, whose wife was Israeli, was able to connect with the Jewish residents on this extremely sensitive international matter.
Also, many of the elderly Jews never forgot how in 1939, FDR refused to allow more than 900 Jewish refugees to enter the country as they sat on the St. Louis just off Miami Beach, forcing them to sail back to Germany where many fell victim to the Holocaust.
Time Magazine documented the mayoral campaign with the following passage:
Jay Dermer died in 1984, but his son never forgot the success of the street level campaign during his own campaign in 2001, when he walked the streets and persuaded voters to elect him mayor for the first time.
As a Miami Beach native, Dermer sees many parallelisms between the Miami Beach Jews of the 1960s to the Cuban Americans who established themselves politically in Miami by the 1980s.
“Voting was extremely important to these people because many were immigrants,” he said of the Miami Beach Jews.
He also sees that spirit of activism among the current gay population of Miami Beach.
“The free speech aspect is very strong in Miami Beach due to a lot of the Jewish activism from the past,” he said. “It is the activists that create the impedance of change in government.”
Miami Beach, which was incorporated in 1915, was owned primarily by three major developers; Carl Fisher, John Collins and John and James Lummus. But Jews were only allowed to live south of Fifth Street in the land that was owned by the Lummus brothers.
“There were deed restrictions on the property north of Fifth Street,” said Marcia Jo Zerivitz, director of the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach. “Carl Fisher had in his deeds that he would not sell to Jews. All the Jews were forced to live south of Fifth Street.”
It is no coincidence that when Joseph and Jenny Weiss, a Jewish family from New York, opened a family restaurant during this time, they opened it south of Fifth Street. That restaurant, which is still under family ownership, is known today as Joe’s Stone Crabs,
As ownership of the land became less consolidated, Jews slowly began moving north of Fifth Street. However, they were still not allowed in Miami Beach hotels, which boasted signs that said, “Gentiles only.”
This discriminatory practice continued even after Miami Beach elected its first Jewish mayor in 1943, Mitchell Wolfson Sr., who started the Womecto Theater Chain and Florida’s first television station, and whose son later founded the Wolfsonian Museum on Miami Beach.
“Jews were not allowed inside hotels until 1949,”.Zerivitz said. “It wasn’t until there was a change in the state law that they were allowed in the hotels.”
But by the 1950s, Jews had made permanent contributions to Miami Beach. Jewish architect Henry Hohauser had designed many of the famed Art Deco hotels on South Beach. Jewish doctors had founded Mt. Sinai Hospital. And a Jewish developer named Ben Novak built the Fountainbleau Hotel; its famous design created by architect Morris Lapidus, another Jew.
But up until the 1960s, it was still a very a paradoxical time for Miami Beach because even though hotels proudly presented some of the finest black musicians of the era, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, they were never allowed to stay in its hotels after performing.
And Jews, who had become a significant factor in the thriving economy of the beach at the time, were still not allowed to live in certain areas, like the Sunset Islands, said Lavender.
“It was a court case that ended that,” he said. “And the country clubs still had restrictions against Jews after that.”
By 1965, there were 65,000 Jews living on Miami Beach, a significant increase from the 7,200 Jews living on the beach in 1945, Sheskin said.
That trend continued throughout the 1970s, but started to slow down in the 1980s when South Beach’s crime rate skyrocketed after the Mariel boatlift. By 1994, only 3,500 Miami Beach households were Jewish, Sheskin said. And in 2004, only 2,100 households were Jewish.
“There was a time when Jews easily made up around 70 percent of the population of Miami Beach, but now it’s about 20 percent,” Sheskin said.
But that is still a significant percentage considering that Jews only make up 2 percent of the United States.
Today, Jews from New York continue to migrant to South Florida, but most of them tend to settle in Palm Beach County or in Aventura.
“Most of the Jews moving down in the sixties were Eastern European immigrants who had lived in New York,” Sheskin said. “They didn’t mind living in high-rises. To them, South Beach reminded them of New York City.”
Today, most of the Jews moving to South Florida are the sons and daughters of the Eastern European immigrants. Many of them grew up in single-family homes in Staten Island or Westchester County. They are more suburban than their urbanite parents.
“They’re not about to start lugging groceries up to a high-rise condo,” Sheskin said.
Rabbi Abraham Korf, a Russian Jew who arrived in Miami Beach from New York City in 1960, remembers the thriving Jewish community of yesteryear as being not too religious.
“There was something missing down here,” he said.
So he went about educating the Jewish community and convincing Miami Beach hotels to begin using glatt kosher products, which is a higher standard of kosher where the meat comes from an animal whose lungs have been found to be free of all adhesions.
Today, he believes, that although there is a smaller Jewish population on Miami Beach, there is a higher rate of Orthodox Jews among them. Because of the overwhelming temptations that abide on South Beach, he said it is a struggle to ensure that younger generations of Jews abide by the strict law of the Torah.
But among the younger generation of Orthodox Jews living on the beach, the main political issues they are concerned on a local level are the same as anybody else living on the beach.
“Safety for our children is a big issue for us,” said Sholem Kleiman, 29, who moved to Miami Beach from Israel a few years ago. “Traffic and cost of living is also a big issue for us. It’s gotten very expensive to live here lately.”
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