“Are you from New York?” asks a middle-aged woman with a thick Brooklyn accent as she cuts through the aisles of the kosher Winn-Dixie grocery store in Boca Raton in a mobility scooter. It’s an hour before the start of the last Shabbat of the Jewish year.
“Years ago,” the woman she’s asking—a brunette in the Modern Orthodox uniform of knee-length skirt and Yankees baseball cap—answers dismissively. They are both looking for lox in the depleted fish aisle.
“You’re still a New Yorker, honey, I can hear it in your voice,” the woman in the scooter says before she vrooms away.
The following evening in Hollywood, Florida, just a half-hour south from Boca Raton on I-95, the strip-mall parking lot outside the kosher restaurant Café Noir resembles an Israeli nightclub, if visibly Orthodox Jews attended Israeli nightclubs. The song “Tel Aviv,” a Mizraḥi pop classic by the Israeli singer Omer Adam, is blasting on outdoor speakers while rows of cars circle the block.
My husband and I turn to one another, realizing we made a big mistake by not calling in advance to place a reservation. It is motsa’ey Shabbat in Hollywood, a town home to one of south Florida’s flagship Modern Orthodox Jewish communities, and the entire cross-section of Jews in Broward County are out and about. Images that come to mind of casually clothed Floridians in flip flops, cargo pants, and baseball caps must be dispelled. Here, it is a catwalk. Religious women are dressed in heels, carrying genuine designer bags, and donning wigs so expensive they are impossible to distinguish from their real hair. Men are in designer watches, a variety of sleek kippot, and crisp ironed shirts.
We are promptly shunted to high stools at the bar, alongside an Israeli couple on a date and two smartly dressed teenage girls ordering milkshakes and ravioli. The bartender turns to the girls and asks where they are from.
“We’re from here.”
“Really? I’m getting a northern vibe from you.”
“Well, we’re from New York originally, but we live here now.”
It used to be popular northeast wisdom that the non-elderly only moved to Florida as an escape, a last resort if their lives had gone off the rails. As the writer Christine Rosen aptly put it, “Florida is where people who had failed elsewhere went to be redeemed.” I was surprised to learn this. When I first moved to the U.S.—I’m British—I couldn’t piece together why Florida was often the butt of jokes and stereotypes like those captured by Jerry Seinfeld’s stubborn parents and their grumpy neighbors. As a long-time Florida visitor—my first visit came at the age of six months—the state always seemed to me a dynamic and diverse place, one made even more enchanted when seen through the lenses of the Minnie Mouse glasses I picked up at Disney World.
Then the pandemic rolled around, and the country either caught up to my Disney-based appreciation or doubled down on its jokes. As cities screeched to a halt, Miami—and the state of Florida as a whole—announced itself as the warm and laidback anomaly among America’s uptight major population centers. Like it or hate it, the plan worked. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 319,020 residents moved out of New York state between July 2020 and July 2021, and, judging by Florida DMV statistics on license-swapping, at least 61,000 of them moved to Florida. Throughout the pandemic, my Facebook timeline has been filled with images of friends and acquaintances announcing their moves with smiley beach-front pictures. Even in ḥaredi circles, which I am not part of but like to keep up with, women report communal group chats filled with messages of families moving to Boca Raton or Aventura. Rather than a place to hide out in, Florida quickly became one of the only places in the United States where life could happen as normal.
And even as the pandemic has waned, the energy of Jewish Florida has kept up. Those who told friends they were only temporarily trying it out and who rented apartments by the beach that would usually go to vacationers or snowbirds soon found they couldn’t resist making the move permanent. “What was supposed to be a six-month stint turned into us turning to each other and saying: we are so happy here, we want to stay,” a mother of two who recently moved to Sunny Isles Beach told me. Pre-pandemic condescension towards Florida was replaced with curiosity, admiration, and even jealousy. If you could work from anywhere, why not do it in proximity to the beach, pool, and golf course? Plus, if you stayed long enough and became a resident, Florida’s famous tax benefits would abound. You might soon even be able to pay your taxes in cryptocurrency.
But Jewish Florida isn’t just the beneficiary of the pandemic. As I discovered over the course of several weeks there last fall, the Jewish instinct for setting down roots has been active in Florida for some time. An obscure but prescient academic article published in the 1980s describes the dichotomy between New York, home to weary Jews of the old world, and proud Florida Jews, whose glitzy outfits and (sometimes) bared muscles suggest vitality, energy, the future.
The American Jewish community tends to think in boxes. It has categories and hypotheses that take hold in the centers of Jewish life in the northeast and are seen to apply to the country at large. Intermarriage: big problem. American Jews: mostly Ashkenazi and Reform, or, more often, ex-Reform. Attachment to Israel: troubled at best. Future of the community: Ḥaredim. (And this is coming from the most sober; there are plenty of American Jews who don’t think assimilation is a problem and are suspicious of ultra-Orthodox Jews.) Some even predict that due to the combination of these factors, the American Jewish diaspora may, in the not-too-distant future, die out altogether.
On all these points, Florida would like a word. American Jewry’s national average intermarriage rate is now at 60 percent, according to the last Pew research poll from 2020. But according to a 2014 demographic study from the Miami Jewish Federation, only 16 percent of Jews in Miami-Dade County were intermarried, while in Broward County, home to cities like Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, and Parkland, the rate is only slightly higher, at 23 percent. And when it comes to the state of Israel, the rift between younger American Jews and Israel simply does not apply: the same 2014 Miami study found that support for Israel was consistent across the board. “The youngest cohort of Jewish adults was as committed to Israel as the oldest cohort of Jewish adults,” the Federation president Jacob Solomon told me.
As for the default background for American Jewry being plain old Ashkenazi, well, walk around any Jewish neighborhood in either of those counties today and you’ll hear Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, and more. Solomon tells me that one third of adults in Jewish households in the Miami area are born outside of the United States. In recent years, south Florida’s Jewish community has been the destination for lots of immigrants from Venezuela; going back a few years to decades earlier, large swathes of Jews came from not only Venezuela but from other countries plagued by political and economic crises—Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere. Then there are Israeli-born Jews numbering in the tens of thousands. Each group likes to create its own institutions, which means there’s an abundance of synagogues, social clubs, kosher restaurants, and majority-Jewish neighborhoods to choose from.
At the same time, these communities and interest groups are intertwined enough that it’s challenging to decide where to place them. Trying to sort through this unique mishmash of experiences and identities, I began to think of the Old City of Jerusalem. On paper, when looking at a map given by a tour guide, or reading an amateur’s webpage, the quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem seem discrete, with clear-cut borders. In reality, as you wind down the cobbled streets, it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.
The comparison between Miami and Jerusalem goes much deeper. As I told our host over Rosh Hashanah, when I was a child, I could hardly tell the difference between south Florida and the Land of Israel. To six-year-old me who only left England for these two places, the palm trees, the abundant kosher food, and the normalcy and vibrancy of Jewish life and practice left me confused. Our host found this very funny. But given that the Jews were the only ones roaming the roads of south Florida at midnight on a balmy Monday evening in September 2021, it didn’t seem so crazy. In truth, Miami is a sort of Jerusalem on the Atlantic. It’s a comparison that I’m far from alone in drawing; for Jews around the world, both Miami and Jerusalem are now cities of aspiration. The holy city will always stand first and foremost as the center of Jewish life. But Miami, and south Florida more broadly, has, I contend, become the second easiest and best place to be a Jew, in the full sense, allowing Jews to live in freedom and dignity, surrounded by Jews from all over the world and of all religious stripes.
Skeptical? Let me prove it to you.
I. The Florida Boom
It’s the week before Rosh Hashanah. As I’m scrolling through new year’s table-setting images on Instagram, I see an advertisement for what to me is a foreign concept: a day of “pre-holiday” shopping for Jewish women. Jewish-owned small businesses are to sell their wares at The Vault, in a spectacular Chabad building in the center of north Miami’s Jewish community. The marketing is as polished and glossy as a department-store ad. Except this event is emphatically not for profit. It is a fundraiser for Bonei Olam, an international charity that provides counseling and financial assistance for Jewish families struggling with infertility. The purpose is to raise money in service of a good cause, with the added benefit of providing a glamorous experience for Jewish women. (I would even categorize this as a luxury experience, if the Jewish-owned modest-wear brands were designer boutiques. Maybe one day!)
As I arrived after waiting ten minutes for my first-ever use of valet parking—cars were lined up and down the street and valet was the only option—I was greeted by a young Sarah Duchman, one of the event’s planners and committee members. She was in a hat and wide-framed glasses and was mobbed by people, but enthusiastically showed me around, eager to talk to a journalist. Bobbing through gaggles of women, she introduced me to a seemingly never-ending set of energetic volunteers, all women in their 20s. The building was filled with beautifully dressed women of all religious stripes—there were wigs, hats, no hats, maxi skirts, and skirts above the knee. Vendors had arrived from New York and all over to sell their wares: hair coverings, children’s clothing, evening gowns, Shabbat dresses, casual skirts for sport, modest beachwear. It reminded me more of the time I snuck into London Fashion Week than a Jewish event. I was taking notes, yes, but I was also enjoying myself. I bought two headscarves and a cowboy hat not dissimilar to what Sarah was wearing. I also picked up some sushi from a flower-laden stand in the center of the room. You might say I had been “influenced.”
Waiting for my car, I noticed a shopper my age wearing the latest Hermes Oran sandals, which retail for over $600 (even the knockoffs are out of my price range). There is of course some irony to such hyper-materialism at a charity event. But the glitz is also a sign of social health, of there being enough people around for someone to want to flaunt in front of. The same goes for the charitable purpose of the event: for a community like south Florida, the presence of a charity like Bonei Olam means that there are enough Jewish parents (unfortunately) struggling with infertility in south Florida to warrant help, and that there is a mass of people large enough to support such charitable infrastructure. In other words, it means that Florida is established in its own right and does not lack the perks of Jewish life in New York.
This goes for charitable endeavors, and even more for the first requirement of any flourishing center of Jewish life: the kosher scene. South Florida now has hundreds of kosher restaurants, cafes, ice cream parlors, and bakeries. I attempted to make a full tally, but even the fraction of these establishments open for Passover are challenging to count. Each establishment that opens seems more snazzy than the last. There is now kosher omakase available, and the new Izzy’s BBQ Smokehouse here, an outpost of the Crown Heights business, is fancier in style than the casual Brooklyn original. This growth was largely made possible, according to long-time Florida residents, by the influx of Orthodox Jews from the northeast.
Six days after The Vault, I march off to Boca Raton for the first part of the holidays, with my trendy new hair-coverings in tow (not sponsored by Mosaic, for the record, my dear editors). Boca is a city in Palm Beach County 30 miles north of Aventura composed of neatly manicured country clubs and strip malls. And now, apparently, Jews. “I never would have left New York City without the pandemic. Now I ended up in the frum part of Boca,” says a business owner originally from London who is not personally observant but describes living near a “shtetl area.” Not having visited Boca for a few years, based on conversations like these, I was expecting the bustle of Crown Heights (or of Hollywood) when my husband and I drove up on the eve of Rosh Hashanah to spend the festival there. But, before sundown at least, Boca remained a prim and proper suburb. Perhaps this is because the city is not walkable; every journey outside of the confines of one’s country club or development is made on wheels. (And unlike in parts of New York, one cannot tell if the driver is a religious Jew just by the make, model, and driving patterns of the car.)
Not walkable, of course, apart from on Jewish holidays and on Shabbat, when Jewish law dictates that even the most un-walkable of places must be walked. And so, as sundown approached, the streets transformed. In a place where there is no foot traffic or even sidewalks in many cases, it was remarkable to see—from our Uber, because we were running frantically late—the streets dominated by men, women, and families walking to synagogue as the new year approached. A quiet suburban town comes alive with the footsteps of Orthodox Jews.
We were led by friends to the Young Israel of Boca Raton, a synagogue that has, we were told, undergone huge changes in the last few years. It used to be a home for elderly congregants who lived part of the year in Boca or had retired there. But as Boca’s young Jewish population has exploded, the congregation has also become more religious, and is now very much a “black hat” community with a beautiful service and stained-glass windows. Palm trees swayed aggressively in the wind behind the glass, reminding us of the tropical climate even when inside. A few of the remaining older congregants were masked, as well as the rabbi when he got up to speak, since he was recovering from COVID-19. Otherwise, it was as if the pandemic never happened. (Many of Florida’s non-Orthodox synagogues shifted to Zoom services for portions of the pandemic. For Orthodox synagogues where this is not an option, masked minyanim were offered for the more cautious, but tended to be filled with mostly elderly residents and only a small number of families.) The service was packed—even the women’s side, which in my experience in other synagogues is usually quite empty on the eve of High Holiday dinners. The community was for the most part homogenous, and I stood out by covering my hair not with a sheitel but a white headscarf. (I don’t usually even cover this much, and wanted to be respectful, but don’t own a $5,000 wig.) Nonetheless, I received smiles and even an extended hello from a senior female community member.
The service was moving, as Rosh Hashanah ceremonies always are. (It stood out to me since it was my first time being among so many Jews in prayer since the pandemic began.) After, we walked about eight minutes—a long walk for Boca, we were told—to the home of Rabbi Yoey and Rebbetzin Smin Shaps, who moved here a few months before the pandemic and barely had time to be new before everyone else moved in too. Quickly, Yoey and Smin, Jewish educators from Canada, dispelled any illusions I had about south Florida’s affordability, at least for religiously observant families, and, if not the reasons people move, the reasons people stay. The popular wisdom at the start of the pandemic was that Florida was cheaper than New York and also offered more living space. It turns out both of those assumptions are false. Houses are often no cheaper here and often end up smaller. Sure, for those who can afford it, there are luxurious country-club homes for sale with mandatory membership fees. (A recent Zillow listing in Boca for an $880,000 dollar home with a swimming pool, with yearly fees of $10,000, is advertised with the words: “an added bonus, for those that are looking for location, there is a synagogue just outside the front gate.”) But those without such means have often ended up downgrading larger homes and backyards in the suburbs of New York for townhomes with shared outdoor spaces in south Florida. Yoey and Smin have a lovely home—one that seems more than big enough to me—but we know it is smaller than the one they left. What does this mean? It means people really, really want to be here. The upside is also that they make friends with all the families in the development and hang out by the shared pool together.
About two miles west from the Young Israel of Boca is Boca Raton West, a fast-growing outpost of the large Boca Raton Synagogue, another Orthodox community. Here I encountered another reason why people might be so interested in moving to Florida, an amusing and revealing one. Led by Rabbi Rael Blumenthal, BRS West hosts services within the walls of the Katz Yeshiva High School, while most of its community members live in a development a few steps away down a short, leafy path. In just six years, the community has grown from twenty families to more than 130. Four babies were born within the span of a few days in September, and the synagogue is now home to a few hundred kids under the age of eighteen. So many have moved that there are basically no homes available to buy in the development. (Homes are so sought after in Boca that some knowingly purchase condos with dangerous levels of radon exposure.)
Tempering Blumenthal’s enthusiasm about the growth in his community is the fact that many families who call him about moving ask about the level of observance there. Meaning: they call and ask if his community is the right place for those looking to downgrade their religious observance. The frankness of these conversations, at least as he reports them, jars me. I’m not, of course, shocked that Jews would be interested in downgrading their observance; I am shocked that they would admit it to the rabbi of the place to which they want to move. Blumenthal, with the matter-of-fact attitude I’ve found common to rabbis, seems less surprised. He doesn’t expect new community members to arrive with the most stringent observance of Jewish law, he merely asks that each family’s “trajectory” should be focused on “moving upwards.”
Blumenthal can guarantee this because he has the soft power of the rabbi to be selective. This is not a legal or explicit selectiveness—it’s more of an, “Oh, this might not be the right place for you.” Families on the receiving end of such hints are not likely to move in, because they need a close relationship with the rabbi in a tight-knit place like this, and if the rabbi doesn’t like them, it doesn’t work. There is something to be preserved in Florida, and Blumenthal is determined to do that. At the same time, this is a selectiveness that is not exclusionary. Florida as a state is known for its non-judgmental attitude, and the Jewish community doesn’t seem much different. Women here report with glee that no one judges them for how long or short their sleeves are, as was likely to happen in New York. Blumenthal’s concern is targeted at moral sliding, not at a failure to fit in socially.
II. The Latin Way
When one thinks Miami, one thinks Cuba—patria y vida slogans, Cuban flags, mambo music. At least a quarter of the population in Miami is either born in Cuba or of Cuban origin. This means that Jewish Cubans, known ubiquitously here as “Jewbans,” are the product of not one but two rich cultures of exile. They deserve special mention because they were the first of many Latin Jews to arrive in south Florida, following the brutal Castro regime’s takeover of Cuba in 1959. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, at least several thousand Jews made their way over to Miami. Since then, there has been a steady flow of Jews to south Florida from a variety of other countries in central and south America. In Broward County, the Latin Jewish population grew from 3,600 in 1997 to 13,200 in 2014, and in Miami, the Latin Jewish population was recorded at 14,900 in 2014. Much like the story of Jewish migration from the Arab world to Israel, each community brings distinctive flavors, histories, and communal reinforcements developed in hostile environments—or, as the south Florida community philanthropist Ariel Bentata calls them, “convoluted neighborhoods.”
As much as one can generalize, the Latin Jews I’ve met are traditional, outgoing, Zionist, patriotically American, and confident; they exhibit natural leadership skills. They are also distinctly Latin in sensibility and bring that to bear on the mainstream south Florida community. In this sense they are like the Mizraḥi Jews who emigrated to Israel after the state’s establishment, with myriad different traditions and identities depending on the country from which they came. In Israel, Mizraḥi Jews feel like they are “from” somewhere, unlike, with the great exception of the more recent Russian arrivals, the more established Ashkenazi Jews who have little attachment to their home cuisine or music. (There is a reason that Arabic and Persian music is heard on popular radio in Israel but klezmer is not.) Latin Jews, like Mizraḥim in Israel, combine a loyalty to their background, a thirst for their new home, and a prioritization of family above all else developed under duress in their home countries. And, like traditional Israelis, they are moving up in the world both despite and because of their challenging journey.
In the process they’ve remade institutional Jewish life in south Florida. In Venezuela, the community’s institutions and buildings are stationed almost entirely within one large and gated compound in Caracas, home to worship, communal activities, and school. And even in countries where this is not the case, communal membership is hard to shed. This is because, unlike in the United States, their non-Jewish neighbors do not make assimilation easy. (The anti-Semitism of the Chavez regime, for example, is well documented.) There’s little room for balkanization in these communities. Even if not everyone is pious, they’re welcome to participate in all communal institutions, and there are plenty of social activities that don’t necessitate religious practice. It’s the same spirit found in Israel, where the liberal denominations common in the U.S. have barely taken hold, and where a person will attend an Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat but then go home and watch TV or go to the beach. There, Jews otherwise scattered around the country will gather on Friday nights in the home of their parents or grandparents and welcome Shabbat together; among Latin Jews, the concept of “family time” is so sacred that it appears to conjure some impenetrable forcefield when spoken out loud.
It was not guaranteed that Latin Jews would seek to replicate their all-encompassing institutions in the United States. After all, plenty of other Jewish communities emigrating here have over time inclined more towards assimilation than cultural preservation. But replicate they have, setting up their own parallel institutions in Miami to much fanfare. How seriously they have gone about this can be seen from a visit to that most august of North American Jewish institutions: the JCC.
One day in September, I head to the Michael-Ann Russell JCC (MARJCC) in North Miami Beach. I’m led around a maze of glass buildings connected by walkways, sports fields, a clubhouse for the Latin-Jewish youth movement Maccabi Tzair, and halls covered with student art and lined with parents conversing animatedly in Spanish and Portuguese. I arrive at the worst possible time: at 4:30 pm, exactly when hordes of children show up for after-school programs, with their parents in tow. (As the latter sit and chat by the soccer field or in the hallways, the JCC seems as much of a social gathering for them as for their kids.) It takes me close to fifteen minutes to find a parking space, and that’s after I’ve made it through the traffic leading into the JCC gates.
Many of the parents and kids were gearing up for the annual Maccabi games, which were to take place a couple of months later but were already eagerly anticipated. Perhaps an afterthought elsewhere, in Miami they are the ultimate show of Floridian patriotism. The Olympic-style games involve 2,000 parents and children signing up to compete in different sports—everything from basketball to swimming to golf to chess. Each child and adult, when he signs up, chooses a country he would like to represent. Most choose their country of origin—here, countries like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, or Venezuela—but some choose Israel. This is a key point of interaction between “American” and Latin children and their families. It encourages the “American” kids who do not have a second country of attachment to choose Israel, reinforcing the overtly Zionist flavor of the games. (In south Florida, someone who is not “from” somewhere else is referred to as “American” whereas those with Israeli or Latin origins are identified as such, even if they were born here.)
The Israeli flavor extends deeply into the culture of the JCC. Roger Weiger, fifty-two, and from Brazil, glides through its halls. Weiger is the director of the Bamachol dance program, a flagship of the JCC, with almost 1,000 kids enrolled, which he started over 25 years ago shortly after moving to Miami from Brazil. It takes place during the week rather than on weekends because, according to Roger, that would be impossible in Miami. “In Miami it’s hard to do things on the weekend,” he explains. “Everyone has a boat or is by the pool.” Weiger is at once celebrity and communal leader. He opens the door to state-of-the-art classrooms with rows of young girls dancing at the instruction of professional teachers. He knows everyone in the building, it seems, and when I say so he nods—many of the mothers of his current students danced with him almost 25 years ago when he first opened.
Why is Weiger so drawn to Israeli dance? He finds it exciting that “we are still developing our folklore” since Israel is such a young country. He doesn’t hesitate to refer to it as “our folklore” despite never having lived full-time in Israel. Normally, he says “I go to Israel once a year to develop the technical aspects of the dance.” Israeli dancing—an old tradition for a new country—provides a “different connection with Israel than the regular American connection.” For Weiger, Israeli dance is the best form of Jewish education. “It’s the only activity that is at once physical, artistic, educational, social, and Jewish.”
Yet as much as Weiger’s program is a connection to Israel, it’s also a connection to Latin America. Israeli dance programs are a staple of Jewish life in multiple communities there, far more so than in the United States. All of his teachers, bar one, were born in Latin America, and the majority of Roger’s students are Spanish-speaking too. The glossy program for a recent dance festival features pages and pages of ads in fuchsia and neon purple taken out by parents celebrating their daughters’ achievements; nearly all are signed “love Mami & Papi.” In Latin America, the lack of assimilation entrenches support for Israel as a unifying force. Likewise, the beloved Latin American youth movement Maccabi Tzair, which has a strong presence in Miami and is also housed at the JCC, seems to replicate Israel’s secular Zionist scouting group Tzofim. Most of the program participants in Maccabi Tzair are not observant, but the youth leaders point out that the religious kids are able to ride over on their bikes instead of driving, just like many teens do in Israel as a happy medium in Shabbat observance.
Florida’s Latin Jews see the local community’s connection to Israel as a point of pride, being very aware that this is becoming a contentious issue among American Jewry at large. Lack of attachment to Israel in the United States “has been a shock to me. That wasn’t the case in Venezuela, or most of the countries I know,” the philanthropist Ariel Bentata explains.
This is one reason the influx of new arrivals to south Florida has been a net positive for the existing Jewish population. Religious vibrancy is another.
Mario Rojzman, sixty, was one of thousands of Jews to leave Argentina for the U.S. after the economic crisis there in the early 2000s. Now he’s a senior rabbi at Beth Torah Benny Rok in Aventura, one of south Florida’s largest Conservative synagogues. For years it was a standard American shul. Now it hosts both Spanish-language and English-language High Holiday services under one roof.
I visited it one evening over Sukkot for a chef-catered four-course meal and trivia night “under the stars,” though due to the rain it had to be held in a covered patio rather than the sukkah. I chit-chatted with a slightly tipsy table of retirees of both Argentinian and American origin, eager to share their love for the community with me after a few specialty mojitos. “We are like family,” they repeated sweetly, perhaps trying to impress this writer. The board is especially close-knit, taking pride most of all in their group trips across the world. (A few years back they met the pope at the Vatican, thanks to Rojzman’s interfaith connections.) But their unity is forged most at home, at trivia nights like this. “When did Ponce Leon land in Florida?” “What is the highest natural point in Florida?” Florida patriotism unites both English and Spanish speakers.
This conviviality is the product of years of effort. Rojzman started out at a synagogue across the street and was hired by Beth Torah almost two decades ago. Before “my first High Holiday I went from cafe to cafe and wrote ‘come, open services, free in Spanish,’” Rozjman says. And when Rosh Hashanah rolled around, “The place was packed. They didn’t ask for anything. They just came.” And one can see today that they are now intermingled. For this Rozjman is grateful. “Beth Torah gave a lot; Beth Torah received a lot: fresh blood, youth, diversity,” he says.
Knowing both that Argentinian Jews tend to be loud, and that Jewish institutions aren’t usually the most organized, I suspected that some drama surely would have erupted over who got the bigger space for the service or whose chazan drowned out the other. But it seems that the Argentinians are deferential to the more-established English-speaking population. During a normal week, when there is only one service at a time, Rojzman instructs those wishing to have a bar mitzvah with Spanish narration or speeches to host it in the afternoon or on a weekday, so as not to alienate the rest of the congregation. Rojzman does cater some programming specifically to Spanish speakers though, hosting a weekly discussion over Zoom with a rabbi in Buenos Aires that started at the height of the pandemic and continuing long after social rules relaxed. Attendance is strong week after week. How many Conservative synagogues around the country can say the same? In the United States, the conventional wisdom is that Conservative Judaism is on the brink of extinction, or at least that it is highly unstable. Not here.
Indeed, the conviviality at the dinner under the stars, with Argentinian and American friends laughing and hugging, seems to represent a broader intermixture that has taken hold among Latin and non-Latin Jews in south Florida. I asked Jacob Solomon, the Federation president, whether this was true. He replied, though not without a caveat, in the affirmative:
I don’t want to sugar coat it. There are always people who are resistant to change. If you’re used to going to shul and you’re used to a particular melody for L’kha Dodi and all of a sudden there’s a Ladino melody, you’re going to say, hey, what’s going on here? It might take you a few Shabbatot to get used to it and start tapping your foot.
In Israel, it took far more than just a few Shabbatot for Mizraḥim and Ashkenazim to mix. It took decades of often painful negotiation, and the process still isn’t complete. But, as here, the payoff has been huge. With the prevalence of so many smiling foreign-born or first-generation Jewish Americans, the standard grim diagnosis of American Jewish life crumbles. There are still hundreds of thousands of Jews in Latin America, which means, even as moving to Florida is expensive and difficult, there are surely more to come.
III. Chabad’s Foothold
The story goes that when the Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson sent his first emissary, Rabbi Abraham Korf, down to south Florida in 1961, the state was pretty much inhospitable to religious Jewish life. At the time, Miami had just three synagogues and no ḥalav yisrael milk for sale (the higher level of kosher stringency required by Chabad). But the rebbe, says Rabbi Alexander Kaller of a Chabad center in Sunny Isles Beach, had a vision: “A day will come that Miami is going to be like Yerushalayim in galut,” that is, “the Jerusalem of exile.” The prescience is undeniable. But actually it’s not prescience so much as it is years of hard work, a religious form of Babe Ruth calling his own home-run shot.
Chabad’s ubiquity in south Florida cannot be overstated. One counts at least 110 Chabad houses there, with multiple groupings overseen by rabbinic patriarchs who deploy children and children-in-law as envoys to nearby communal outposts.
Chabad is of course successful in many communities around the world, but it is really, really successful in Florida. This is perhaps because Chabad knows something about preserving a traditionalist Jewish environment that everyone can be a part of with minimal effort and maximum payoff. Attending a Friday-night dinner at a Chabad rabbi’s house is not a chore—it is like dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv on Purim. It is light, fun, and adaptable. When the Chabad of Brickell, a neighborhood in downtown Miami, decided to focus on reaching the new and very young pandemic arrivals—mostly recent college graduates who replaced some of the families that moved from downtown to the suburbs—it almost entirely changed its model of engagement by opening its rooftop and creating a social scene that could rival the bustle of neighboring bars and clubs.
In the center of the main thoroughfare in Bal Harbour, one of the country’s most exclusive villages on the beach just outside of downtown Miami, is a giant menorah. Some might call its size obnoxious. I call it a marvel. Driving past this menorah on family visits in the past was always a sign to me that Jews are welcome in America. Only later did I find out just how welcome they were in this specific town. It belongs to a Chabad congregation known just as The Shul, a gathering place for the town’s Jewish community. The story goes that in the 1980s the founding rabbi of The Shul, Sholom Lipskar, was prevented from adding a Hanukkah component to an extensive nativity display adorning the fancy Bal Harbour Shops, and so decided to plant his own menorah. The Shul now makes space for Sephardi, Latin, and Ashkenazi services under one roof, and has six full-time rabbis, each with his own niche.
The success of The Shul was accomplished day by day by plucky shlukhim (Chabad emissaries) walking the main thoroughfare of Collins Avenue and pressing not-always-observant Jewish men on the street to wrap tefillin. Indeed, in Florida, Chabad has replaced Conservative or Reform services for many minimally observant families. Why do they prefer to attend a ḥasidic service in Hebrew over a Reform one in English? A few reasons. Though Chabad rabbis often simplify Jewish teachings to make them accessible, they steer clear of any politics at the pulpit. Chabad sermons sound like moral stories and to an untrained eye might approach the universalism of many Reform sermons, in that they are unlike the intricate legal analyses of Orthodox rabbis at the pulpit. (“To love every Jew as one loves himself,” is a core tenet.) But they do not accommodate Jewish law to modernity’s ethical sensibilities, and their universalism starts and stops with the Jews, not extending to vague social-justice teachings. Chabad also operates under the principle that all should come as they are, and is generally friendly to latecomers and the casually dressed.
One community that exemplified this vision and success was Chabad of Fort Lauderdale, the “Riviera of the Americas.” Inspired by the rebbe’s vision for Florida, over the past 30 years Rabbi Moshe Meir has built there a gleaming, Jerusalem-marble synagogue filled with congregants on a weekly basis, not just High Holy Days. Chabad of Fort Lauderdale is home to an eclectic mix of newly religious Jews, lone Kabbalists, couples, elderly women, and Jews of Brazilian origin. Given its proximity to the beach, it’s not unheard of for congregants to show up in swimsuits. Meir even met one long-time congregant, a Brazilian man in his fifties who did not realize he was Jewish until Meir questioned the origins of his name, at the swimming pool.
The synagogue is now the base for a whole neighborhood. Look to your left, and you will notice Meir is buying up the entire block. First a mikveh, then a kosher restaurant, and then a larger space for the Chabad kindergarten. One stubborn business remains in the center, refusing to be bought out, but Meir is confident they will relent soon enough. He also oversees three other Chabad outposts in different parts of Fort Lauderdale, one of which is presided over by his daughter and son-in-law.
In some parts of the world, Chabad is seen as an institution for transients and travelers, or as a stepping-stone to observance at mainstream Orthodox synagogues. But in Florida, Chabad houses maintain regular synagogue membership models and operate as permanent communities rather than or in addition to their function as extenders of hospitality. (Perhaps the key to this is the distinctive branding of some of the Chabad houses there: the Israeli Center, the Russian Center, and so on.)
One day while I was there, Rabbi Alexander Kaller of the Russian Center shows me his own community’s prominent position in Jewish south Florida. Born into a secular Jewish family in the former Soviet Union, he now leads an affluent community in Sunny Isles Beach, another beach town adjacent to Bal Harbour and close to downtown Miami, which for years attracted Russian oligarchs and their families, and, more recently, has brought in Jewish families of Soviet origin settling in the sunshine state after leaving New York. This is a community that escaped religious oblivion and economic hardship in the former Soviet Union and is now determined to make a good life for themselves and their children. Here, like in Israel, the Russian-speaking community manages to be quintessentially Jewish without fear or, it must be said, much effort. Most of the congregants are not observant in their own homes and do not send their children to Jewish schools. But that last point at least might soon change, thanks to some reasons for Florida’s rise as a Jewish center that often get left out of the conversation.
IV. Old Florida and New
Today, Florida is a great place for the Jews. But like everything in an area that requires constant air conditioning to be livable, this state of affairs was not easily won. Florida’s disposition to the Jews ebbed and flowed after the 1930s, when many of the area’s well-known developers and movers and shakers were Jewish and built the structures that make South Beach in Miami the economic boon it is today. (Rose Weiss, a Jewish woman who emigrated from Russia via New York, attended every meeting of the city council in the 20s and 30s and coined the city’s unofficial motto at the time: Forward with Caution.) In the 1970s, almost 80 percent of Miami Beach was Jewish, but hostility towards Jewish practice was pronounced. The majority of residents were elderly, and some were Holocaust survivors. Sean Burstyn, a lawyer in Miami, recalls his father, also a lawyer, representing a rabbi in Miami Beach, known as the Kerestir rebbe, who led a community of Holocaust survivors. He was old and frail, and so the minyan would meet at his home. But the non-Jewish neighbors wouldn’t have it. “The neighbors said ‘This wasn’t zoned for a synagogue,’ and the mayor showed up with the police,” Burstyn recalls. His father took on the minyan’s case pro bono.
Burstyn’s story is indicative of attitudes across the area that persisted for a long time. Many rabbis and community members I spoke to recall signs prohibiting Jews, blacks, and dogs from entering establishments lasting into the 1980s. The enclave of Bal Harbour plays an important role in memories of previously rife anti-Semitism in south Florida—when, as people I spoke to put it, south Florida was like the American south. Bal Harbour was a planned municipality that effectively banned Jews and blacks by tying ownership of homes and condos to membership at the Bal Harbour Beach Club, where Jews and blacks were not welcome. (Now it has a Jewish and Latin mayor, the dynamic Gabriel Groisman, in addition to that huge menorah on the main road.)
There was a sense too that Florida was inhospitable to the intellectual and creative excellence necessary to cultivate a strong Jewish community. In a 1981 article in the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature, the English professor Andrew Gordon discusses Miami Beach’s portrayal in American Jewish literature of the post-war era not as “the New Zion” (his words) I have described here but as a “tropical hell or even a death camp.” He references short stories by Norman Mailer and Isaac Bashevis Singer that portray a seedy jungle of derelict hotels and Cuban caretakers pouncing on Jewish men. And today, some of those longstanding Jewish residents get annoyed at the social mores of the new arrivals. As with any great influx of people, those who were there before can get a bit territorial. They complain that the New Yorkish element of Florida is “not real Florida,” or that the pretentiousness and flaunting of the new arrivals is grating, at least in the period before Florida brings them down to earth.
How did Florida become a place where this could happen—where old Jews could grate at thousands of newcomers, where those thousands of newcomers could comfortably live Jewish lives and raise Jewish families? Politics plays a role: the arrival of thousands and thousands of immigrants forced the hand of those who would have preferred to keep them out; years of religious activism and Jewish-Christian alliances have paid off, leading to a cultural climate that is now especially welcoming to religious life; Florida’s lack of income tax appeals to all who move there but is perhaps particularly appealing to observant Jews, who feel the sting of a lifestyle that costs more than others.
Along these lines, and most of all, religious Jewish Floridians have engaged deeply in the policy priority that matters most to them as Jews. The greatest barrier to Jewish education and continuity in the United States is the cost of Jewish day school. Tuition from preschool to high school can cost families with multiple children upwards of a million dollars. Florida is appealing because it has one of the most generous and established school-choice policies in the country. Since 2001, there has been a tax-credit voucher program that offers families an average of $7,500 per child every year that they can use at a non-public school. (The credits are income-based.) Plus there are savings accounts worth on average $9,300 for special-needs children.
According to TeachFlorida, an offshoot of the Orthodox Union that has been key in cultivating a grassroots movement in favor of school choice, 5,403 Jewish children are now using the school-voucher system in Florida for the current school year, and 63 Jewish schools participate in the voucher program. The quality, growth, and affordability of Florida’s Jewish schools is at least in part thanks to these factors. And Jewish activism is a key part of the story of this policy. That activism has been sustained and mobilized by Allan Jacob, a physician and TeachFlorida’s chairman. Jacob penned an op-ed last year in the Wall Street Journal about New York Jews leaving for Florida; according to him, they cited school choice as a key factor in their decision.
Just as Florida’s demographics have changed in the pandemic, so too have its politics. Widely circulated images of mask-less life have turned off some and attracted others over the last two years. Governor Ron DeSantis is solidifying a new base of support across a range of demographics, creating a hub of Republican activity in Florida that some compare to California under Ronald Reagan.
Some Jews are jostling to be a part of this political renegotiation. There are so many high-ranking Jewish conservatives in the area that they have formed a group chat “Tribe – MIA.” Young families in particular seem glad to be out of cities like New York, where they felt stifled by an ultra-progressive social environment. A young mother I spoke to who moved to Florida from the Upper West Side and is delighted with her ability to speak freely on politics worries that her friends joining her from New York will ruin things politically. (This is of course a trope that is long-established with Californians moving to Texas.) Most people I spoke to provided glowing reviews of DeSantis, and, in turn, his communications manager was keen to emphasize his support for the Jewish community. At the same time, there’s also a strain of Internet-originated far-right activism lurking here. This most notably reared its head in February at the white-supremacist Nick Fuentes’s America First Political Action Conference, which took place in Orlando.
But amid these swirling forces, exciting and scary both, most Floridians, new and old, Jewish and otherwise, are focused on their own lives. Sure, Ben Shapiro lives here, but his neighbors let him be. I meet the philanthropist Paul Kruss, who owns New York-style Jewish delis in Miami-Dade and Broward County that frequently play host to political parlor meetings and larger campaign events. He was born in Venezuela and is now married to an Israeli woman. Kruss knows everyone in Florida politics but is exceedingly modest, except about one thing: the vibrancy of Florida’s Jewish community, with its dynamism ignited by the foreign-born population. He seems willing to engage with politicians of both political parties, as long as they support that community and the state of Israel.
V. Something Familiar about the Place
In June of last year, a thirteen-story apartment building collapsed in Surfside, a town outside of Miami. The event made international news, and the world was gripped by the more than week-long search for survivors. Ninety-seven people, many of them Jewish, were killed, the largest loss of life in the United States in such circumstances in decades.
As was widely reported, a significant number of those who lived in that building were Israeli. I’m told by those who don’t know anything about the area that it was strange to see a tragic event befall so many Israelis not in the Middle East but in a random high-rise outside of Miami. Yet this was not some bizarre Mossad conspiracy but a reflection of the fact that there is a surprisingly large Israeli population in the south Florida area. While we don’t have recent official statistics, local residents report hundreds of Israeli families from New York City, Los Angeles, and elsewhere moving to south Florida during the pandemic alone. And in the 2014 Miami Jewish Federation study, there were 18,000 persons living in Israeli households, a figure that doesn’t include Broward or Palm Beach County. (Miami also leads the nation in the percentage of Jewish households that have made the expensive trip to visit Israel, at over 70 percent.)
What’s more, unlike Israeli communities elsewhere in the United States, the one in Florida is tied into the broader Jewish network. In most Diaspora communities, Israelis often behave in one of two ways. Either they are unaffiliated entirely with the Jewish community, taking Israeli secularism to the extremes, or they engaged in their own rituals and institutions, acting without their non-Israeli neighbors. In south Florida, by contrast, the Israeli community is an integral part of the institutions that form Jewish life. The Riviera Parliament, a Hebrew-speaking social group and mentorship program for Israelis with hundreds of members across south Florida, holds the meetings of their Miami chapter in the JCC I described earlier. And the Miami Jewish Federation was the first federation in the country that I know of to create a dedicated division, led by Assaf Shami, an Israeli-born Floridian, to deal specifically with the Israeli community.
I meet Shami in the Aroma café in Aventura, a chain that was started in Israel, and now has a few outposts in North America. Nothing feels more Tel Aviv. They have an indoor seating area, but most patrons choose to sit outdoors by the palm trees, working on their laptops or taking coffee meetings. As I sip an Israeli-style iced coffee—an ice café, not a café kar—I get to know him: he moved to Texas after a terrorist attack plagued his family and is now a local business owner on top of his work for the federation. He speaks with earnest passion about engaging Israelis in the business sphere in Florida and has spearheaded several programs to this effect.
The fruits of this social cohesion were visible in the response to the Surfside accident. The Israeli army was at the forefront of the official crisis response, with the IDF’s National Rescue Unit recovering 81 of the victims with the help of 3D computer models. Within just eight hours, a kosher kitchen was opened by an Israeli philanthropist to provide food for the survivors. “That became a real point of galvanizing the Israeli community,” Denise Tamir, a community leader, explains. The Shul of Bal Harbour was hard hit, and the federation operated with them to provide resources for survivors and the families of victims. Years of work to ensure fruitful relationships between the Israeli community and the organized Jewish community had paid off.
Why do Israelis come, and why in Florida more than in other parts of the United States have they managed to integrate and thrive? Perhaps because the area feels like home.
An old poem about Miami Beach described it as the “shtetl by the sea.” This is what Miami Beach was at one time: God’s waiting room, a dilapidated retirement home for mostly Jewish residents. Today, it is bustling with young people from all over the world, as well as business opportunities. (Like the start-up nation, Miami is experiencing a tech boom.) Miami is one of the ten-fastest growing cities in the United States. The Jews are an integral part of this story, nestled between the competing tensions of individualism and covenantal duty in America, yet bucking all the trends currently spelling danger for many of the rest of the country’s Jewish communities. Perhaps in a generation or two, there will even be Jewish colleges in south Florida offering excellent education with in-state tuition and facilities for observant students.
In calling Miami “galut,” the Lubavitcher rebbe was referring to a world in exile, one waiting for the messiah, redemption, and return. But for many Jews moving from around the world, or even from within the United States, Florida doesn’t feel like a staging area or a cold exile. No, it exemplifies the American dream as an excellent place to reinvent oneself not by shedding Judaism but instead by living an even fuller Jewish life. Religion is accessible and rabbis value moral growth over external markers of religiosity, participating in Jewish institutions is fun, and being a patriotic American, Israeli, and even Venezuelan too doesn’t elicit contradiction. Young Jews take on leadership positions in both local politics—the very recently elected mayor of the town of Surfside is an Orthodox Jew—and civil society with gusto. Living here feels like something worth fighting for. Like Israel, Miami now offers a model for a thriving Jewish experience, in which one can bask in a sunny and welcoming environment without the threat of persecution that is more and more plaguing Jews in other states. (Florida has been relatively free of the anti-Semitic graffiti and violence facing Jews in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and elsewhere over the last few years.)
This is not to say there aren’t tensions at play in the sunlight. To thrive here, Jewish communities have gotten used to enormous displays of wealth in their daily dress, school and synagogue buildings, holidays and weddings, and leisure activities. (More than one community rabbi pointed out a love of things that sparkle.) This is not entirely becoming behavior for a religious community and signals a temptation toward secular values. At the same time, you could, I suppose, argue it the other way: that the community’s comfort with glitz and glamour might act as a bulwark against assimilation, ensuring that religious Jews can taste part of the good life within the tribe, rather than needing to escape to secular Miami’s nightclubs and yacht parties.
Likewise, the instinct towards reinvention in Florida signals something else that perhaps sits in tension with Jewish life: America’s frontier mentality, the desire and ability to move away—in this case to dislodge or unmoor yourself from Teaneck or Crown Heights, even if your family has lived there for generations, and reconstitute yourself as part of a new chosen community. Yet Jews have always picked up and moved, and the chosen communities of Florida tend to be deeply traditional, with clear boundaries. Besides, the Latin Jews and Israeli Jews who move here are not coming to join the American frontier but to enjoy a more predictable, quieter life, with business opportunities and stable governance.
With these tensions in mind, what is to come of the future? Will mainstream American Jewish organizations re-orient their image and priorities towards the diverse vibrancy of south Florida? And right now the threat of assimilation is off the table—will that change? Will Latin Jews eventually follow the gravitational pull of secular American life and assimilate, like other generations of Jews landing in America before them? I think not, since the arrivals of Persian and former Soviet Jews that preceded them relatively recently have not assimilated. But none of these groups have been here long in the grander scheme of things, and I might well be proven wrong.
For now, the largest difference between Florida and Israel lies in the fact that Jewish immigrants to Florida must come from a certain echelon of privilege that is not required of immigrants to Israel, who benefit from the law of return and the many programs that support aliyah financially and logistically. (Many Latin Jews may also find it easier to emigrate to Spain.) That is, those who can manage to make it here tend to be relatively well off compared to their neighbors in their countries of origin, Jewish and non-Jewish. This is simply a feature of U.S. immigration laws, as well as the cost of maintaining religious observance in America today. Aside from these obstacles, and the fact that Israel will always be the primary home of the Jewish people, Florida is proving itself to be a close second contender.