I n recent years, south Florida has emerged as a vital hub of Jewish life. Bringing together Latin Jews, Orthodox Jews, secular Israelis, and Jewish migrants from the northeast, the region has nourished a distinctively American Jewish culture unlike anywhere else in the world. In her April Mosaic essay about Jewish life in south Florida, the writer Tamara Berens finds that it has become a kind of Jerusalem on the Atlantic, which makes it, in her view, “the second-easiest and -best place to be a Jew.”
To explore how that happened and to get a deeper understanding of what makes south Florida such a remarkable place to live as a Jew, we invited Berens, the business owner and communal leader Paul Kruss, and the Miami Beach rabbi Ariel Yeshurun to speak with Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver. Together, they gave an inside look at the dynamism of Jewish life in south Florida, and what it reveals about American Jewry. The event took place Tuesday, May 3, at 12 pm Eastern time, live on Zoom. Watch a recording and read the transcript below.
We have come together to discuss a fascinating development in the social and religious life of the United States: the dynamism and explosive growth of south Florida’s Jewish community. Jews, of course, have lived in Florida for a very long time. And the trends that we’re tracing in this conversation have likewise been growing for some time, but national media and, I would say, the Jewish conventional wisdom in the United States started to take notice of this growth, especially the growth of Orthodox and traditionally religious families in Florida, just a few years ago. Then came the pandemic, and I think COVID-19 seemed to accelerate the trends dramatically .
Florida has now quite simply established itself as an extremely desirable place for religious families to live. Our purpose is to try to understand why and what it means: what it means for American Jews and what it means for the United States. There are all kinds of reasons for this development and we’ll discuss some of them shortly. Some of them are political; some are cultural and economic. Our point of departure for this discussion is a fabulous essay, “Jerusalem on the Atlantic,” written by Tamara Berens. Tamara was formerly a Krauthammer fellow with us at Mosaic, and she’s currently the director of young professional programming at the Tikvah Fund. Tamara joins us now from Jerusalem. Tamara, welcome.
We’re also joined by Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun of the Sky Lake Synagogue in North Miami Beach, originally from Israel. And also Paul Kruss, a business owner, communal leader, and philanthropist in south Florida. As I said, Rabbi Yeshurun but also Paul Kruss themselves have moved to Florida. Rabbi Yeshurun spent his early life in Israel and then served as a communal rabbi in the Caribbean. Mr. Kruss was born in Venezuela. More from each of them in due course, but gentlemen, you are most welcome.
I think, Tamara, the place to begin is probably with you. It’d be valuable, I think, to hear you recapitulate, if you would, the main themes of your essay. Tell us about what you saw in the place that you call Jerusalem on the Atlantic.
Thank you very much, Jon. It’s a pleasure to be with you today. And as Jon said, as we’re talking about the Jerusalem on the Atlantic, the title of my essay, I’m coming to you from the real Jerusalem on the eve of Yom ha-Zikkaron, which is the day of remembrance in Israel for fallen soldiers and terror victims. I think it’s quite poignant that we are able to hold an event on this day about a vibrant Jewish community, this one in Florida. Rabbi Yeshurun and Paul, I just wanted to acknowledge you as well. It’s a pleasure to have you on the ground in Miami, and I’m very excited for the audience to get to know you further as Jon continues the conversation.
First, as Jon said, let me set the stage a little. I will start off by saying that this piece about the flourishing of Jewish communities in Florida was a special one for me to write. I typically write in a way that critiques—I explain negative trends that are occurring to the Jewish people rather than positive ones. And so the ability to do something quite different here and uncover something that I think is wonderful—that’s going on in south Florida and that’s happening for American Jews as a whole—was quite spiritually nourishing. The impetus for this piece was twofold, and I’ll touch on these two brief points that I think illuminate some of my thinking, and I will go over some of the key points of the essay itself, which highlight what makes Florida a remarkable place for the Jewish people, and, as I contend, the second-best place to be a Jew today.
Let’s start in the spring and summer of 2020, when we all read with interest the stories of Jews in the Northeast and other parts of the United States flocking to south Florida at the height of the pandemic. If you had your ear to the ground or to your phone at the time, you, much like myself, might have heard the stories that unfolded about the fact that Florida was of course open for business, while the cities and states that are home to the majority of the American Jewish community were not. Some families rented vacation apartments to escape restrictive measures against communal prayer and school regulations in a temporary sense, others purchased new homes and moved permanently at the outset—they wanted to be closer to the beach and nightlife. Overall, we saw a huge buzz around south Florida coming from Jews at all stages of life and from a variety of religious communities. But of course the success of south Florida’s Jewish community far predates the pandemic and it would be a mistake to pin it only on the pandemic.
In that regard, I think of something that Paul Kruss, who’s with us of course, said to me early on in one of our conversations. He said that Florida has the strongest and most diverse community in the Diaspora, and that the reason for this is that there’s a very strong group of foreign-born Jews who live there. The latest survey by the Miami Jewish Federation found that one third of Jews who are part of the community are foreign-born, from all around the world, but primarily from Israel and Latin America. This predates the pandemic and will outlive the pandemic, in my opinion. The second point I want to note is that I do have a personal connection to Florida; it was the site of many idyllic childhood vacations, and I did start off with a very positive impression, but without much evidence to back up this impression. And so I wanted to paint a portrait that provides as full a picture as possible of the cross section of religious and communal and social life for Jews in south Florida. What did I come to find as part of this endeavor?
Let me take you briefly through some of my core arguments. First, the pandemic phenomenon. There was an exodus of mostly religious families from the Northeast of the United States to south Florida during the pandemic. For Orthodox families, the question really has stood for decades, at least in my opinion: why is it that Modern Orthodox families or Orthodox families choose to settle in states like New York or California or New Jersey, when these states are fairly inhospitable to Jewish life? When it comes to social issues, when it comes to school choice, when it comes to the cost of living, these states really don’t seem to me, as an outsider, as somewhere that you would gravitate towards to raise a Jewish family. And so during the pandemic it seemed that many Modern Orthodox families wised up to this. I don’t believe that the pandemic was the only impetus, but I do believe it provided a window of opportunity, according to some of the families that I spoke to, to go ahead and make that move.
They [those Orthodox families] began to realize that they could enjoy, or perhaps set up the same amenities and institutions, in south Florida as they could in New York or New Jersey. We’ll get to Florida’s political climate in a little bit, but let me briefly just give you a sketch of the Modern Orthodox Jewish communities in Boca Raton. Synagogue and day-school membership and attendance there doubled and tripled and continued to grow throughout the pandemic, and the influx of Jews from New York and elsewhere were welcomed—they really provided and fostered Jewish vibrancy in a place that was already growing. In particular, you saw synagogues whose memberships used to be composed primarily of elderly congregants that then became vibrant places for young families to worship and to organize around. And it seemed to me that the Jewish muscle that knows how to create and run successful institutions worked very quickly in cities like Boca Raton. We also saw a small outpost of one of the major Orthodox synagogues that, in the pandemic, turned into a thriving community of its own right.
One of the major institutions of American Jewish life is of course the Chabad movement, and Chabad has a very special role to play in Florida. The story goes, and this is a story that I heard from many Chabad emissaries, many Chabad shluḥim, that when the Lubavitcher rebbe [Menachem Mendel Schneersohn] sent his first emissary down to Florida in 1961, the state was pretty much inhospitable to religious Jewish life. Meaning, at the time, it was more like the South, the American South of old, and that meant that it was a place that didn’t have Jewish infrastructure, where they couldn’t find ḥalav Yisrael milk—they couldn’t find milk that was kosher to their standards of stringency—and so they literally had to bring it in from out of state. They had to bring every building block that would allow them to live a fully Jewish life. The rebbe had a vision and he was the one that was bolstering the resolve of the people whom he had sent there. He would tell them, “A day will come when Miami is going to be like the Yerushaliym in galut,” meaning the Jerusalem of exile, and the reason that he gave for this was that Miami would, like Jerusalem, become a showcase of all the different types of Jews, that there would be Jews from around the world of all religious stripes who would congregate in this place. It’s really quite prescient because, at least in my opinion, I think empirically that has come into play.
Part of that success is absolutely due to the Chabad movement, which really flourished in many ways in south Florida by creating core synagogues, community centers, and other institutions that essentially cross communal life, that people from all different religious backgrounds gravitate towards. I think this is something quite unique because Chabad [institutions] in other places might be perceived as providing an experience that’s transient—the synagogue you attend on vacation. Not every Chabad community in every city in America or in every place around the world is really a place of permanence in the way that it is in south Florida and I think that’s a real testament to south Florida.
I mentioned the Jews from all around the world who have come to live in south Florida and make a life for themselves; the biggest group of those are Latin American Jews, or at least the most visible. I will note here that obviously the statistics I used in the piece, as you’ll see if you read it or if you’re going to read it, are incomplete, and I do hope that this piece and the demographic growth of Florida more generally will encourage further investment into a real analysis of the community. But as it stands, from what we have available, we know that there is a huge number of Latin Jews that have settled there, and I think that this has given south Florida a real vibrancy that other communities in the United States might be perceived to lack.
The thing that distinguishes these Latin Jews and what they’ve given to south Florida Jews as a whole is really a love for Israel and a love for America that go hand-in-hand—there’s no tension between belonging to the Jewish people and belonging to the state of Israel and being proud and patriotic Americans. This really comes through in all of the activities and institutions that Latin Jews have touched in south Florida. If I have to pick one that stands out, I think it would be the JCC [Jewish Community Center] in Miami, which really is a meeting point for people from all around the world. The languages that you hear most are Spanish and Portuguese and a little bit of Hebrew, and it’s a place where Latin Jews have been able to bring over, in many cases, the institutions and infrastructure that they had founded in Venezuela, in Argentina, in Colombia into the United States and reenact those institutions in America, to much success. You can see that it’s been to the benefit of the community at large, including, as they’re referred to, the Americans—of course they are all Americans, but just semantically that’s a way to distinguish someone who has Latin heritage or who doesn’t. Those who are just American Jews are welcome into this, there isn’t any tension between the new arrivals and the old arrivals. I think that’s something quite significant. Again, there’s very little ghettoization of these new communities.
So we’ve talked about Chabad, we’ve talked about Orthodox Jews, we’ve talked about the Latin community. I also want to say just a few words about the political and social fabric that has enabled these communities to continue to flourish, and then briefly a word about the Israeli community, and then I’m going to close.
It’s no secret that Florida has made itself stand apart from many other states in America during the pandemic. That’s something that has obviously created a lot of attention, but in addition to Florida’s pandemic policies, I think it’s very crucial to note that there are other policies that make Florida a great and very attractive place to raise a Jewish family, the first being very positive school-choice provisions, as well as a voucher program, tax relief, so on and so forth, that really are just growing and growing. What was interesting to me is that it’s growing in such a way that the Jewish community is at the forefront of the activism, pushing for this growth, and that’s quite unique. You don’t often see Jewish communities around the country that are engaged in organized, effective activism for their own interests. In addition to that, Florida is affordable. It is becoming less and less affordable in recent years due to the influx of people moving there, driving up housing prices, but the lack of income tax does make it an appealing place for Jewish families who have to put so many children through Jewish schooling.
I can’t end my brief summary without mentioning the Israelis who I encountered there. Obviously, the essay is titled “Jerusalem on the Atlantic” and I think that, in many ways, it’s the people from Jerusalem who have provided south Florida with so much vibrancy. Just as the Latin Jews are very patriotic about both America and Israel, Israeli Jews bring their own loyalties to Israel, to the United States, and this real fervor and passion to south Florida. I think something else that they bring is an appreciation for Judaism that is accessible to all, traditional Judaism that is accessible to all, and just an openness to welcome Jews from all walks of life to participate in Jewish ritual in a way that is convenient, without diluting the content of, and the meaning behind, those rituals. I think that’s really crucial. Just seeing the way that Israeli businessmen and -women have flourished and are now laying the grounds for institutions that will help cultivate the future generation of Jewish leaders in south Florida, of Israeli origin, I think it’s very special. In addition to that, seeing the way that the Israeli community has really integrated with the American Jewish community [in south Florida] and the established American Jewish community as a whole—it was very unusual to me to witness something like that. I think that it provides a lot of hope for the future, for a continued relationship between the established Jewish community and the new arrivals that in other places do tend to be quite separate, in my experience.
Overall, these are just some of the factors. I could go on and on. In the process of researching and writing this piece and getting to spend wonderful time in Florida—during the Jewish high holidays, during the ḥagim in September 2021—I just developed an even stronger love for Florida and for its wonderful and hospitable people and its vibrancy.
To close, I would just say that I think Florida defies, in so many ways, the boxes that American Jews have created for themselves. These boxes have tended to define the ways in which the American Jewish community looks forward to its future and analyzes the problems it faces. I think that Florida is the antidote to this in many ways and can provide a lot of answers to the questions that some of us are concerned about. Just to mention one statistic, from the Miami Jewish Federation: you don’t see any gap between the affinity for Israel among the elderly population and the young population. This is a major source of concern in other centers of Jewish life in the United States and it’s something that just doesn’t apply to Florida. I think it’s this and the factors that I’ve mentioned earlier that really make south Florida just a unique place for American Jews and a place where one can be a Jew in the fullest sense.
One can be pro-Israel and pro-America, live a Jewish life with relative ease in Florida, as compared to the other established centers of Jewish life. I would hope that the American Jewish community will invest a lot more resources and energy into seeing how south Florida can provide a model for other communities, and into seeing how south Florida can be further supported given the success that it has had in creating so many vibrant and dynamic institutions and in creating homes for growing and dynamic Jewish families who have come from around the world and around the United States to make their lives there.
One of the things that I liked most about your approach to writing is that you make these arguments through stories and vignettes, and I think that the piece really sparkles because you create an impression of what it’s like there. I wonder if you can just bring this to life for our audience with you shopping at the Vault—this fascinating experience that you had in North Miami. Tell us what happened there.
Yes, absolutely. I’d be glad to. I definitely burnt a hole in my checkbook at that event. As I was really beginning to delve into this piece, I got on the ground in south Florida right before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. I happened to be scrolling through my Instagram, which is really a great place to keep up to date with the goings on in the Jewish community, and I saw an advertisement for an event called “the Vault,” and it was done in such a professional manner. I mean, it looked like it was an advertisement for a department store or for a high-end clothing line. As I examined it further, I saw that it was in fact, a charity event for a Jewish charity named Bonei Olam. It provides assistance to families who are suffering from infertility issues. This event was essentially a day of shopping designed for Jewish women, and all of the proceeds would go towards this charity. It was being held in the Aventura Chabad—which is a wonderful building, it’s an event venue in its own along with being a community center—and Orthodox designers came from across the country and across Florida of course to sell their wares at this event. Hundreds of women attended from all across the community in south Florida and I myself managed to buy quite a few goodies. It was really wonderful to see so many people who would choose to go this event and to shop for a Jewish charity in a Jewish location, rather than choosing to go to whatever mall that they would otherwise go to and buy clothing at a regular store.
I think it really speaks to the tremendous growth of the community in south Florida to be able to pull off an event with hundreds of people, the week before Rosh Hashanah, in which everything is so busy. It was just an excellent start to my time in Florida, truly something that was spectacular. I think seeing also so many wonderfully dressed women made me feel a little bit out of place, but I think it’s a wonderful thing that the Jewish community is able to present itself in that way. Honestly, I think it shows the strides the community has taken to attain financial stability and the ability to perpetuate itself, which, obviously, relies on financial stability.
To me, it suggested a few things that I think are worth putting on the table. First, by comparison to the sticky-floored kosher restaurants of the Northeast, this is a community of gigantic wealth that is willing to put some of that wealth toward philanthropic causes, and that there is a development of a civil society or social institutions that serve the Jewish community there. One of the questions that we should have is what can be learned from this and whether it can serve as a model. But the other thing is, just to create in our audience the perception, as you communicated in the essay, that this is a Jewish community that does not feel dark and gloomy—it’s sunny and young and well-dressed.
We’ll come to Rabbi Yeshurun in a few minutes, but there’s an interesting dynamic here about the effect that wealth will have on the spiritual life of the community. I think it’s a fascinating thing, the fact that, again, just to underscore something you’ve already said, this day of pleasure and commerce and shopping was a program of Chabad or held in the space of Chabad. It’s category mixing that is fascinating. We’ll have to learn more about that. There’s one other thing, Tamara, before we move on, that I want to ask you to speculate on, which I found just fascinating in your essay. It goes back to something that you hand over from the Chabad rebbe, and this story of how there’s no ḥalav Yisrael milk, and you have to bring everything in and build all the pieces as if you are building the Jewish infrastructure from scratch.
That taps into this American mythology of pioneering, of leaving where you come from and going to establish something new. And of course that is bound up in the individualist ethic of being willing to take risks and leave your family behind, but that whole ethic now comes into tension with the very communal nature of the place that these people want to go. They want to go and establish religious sub-communities where they’re not only individuals, but are built into the matrix of covenant and obligation and the generations and so on. It’s another interesting category-blending mix, and I just wonder if you have any thoughts about it.
I think that’s really well said, and it’s something that I’ve put a lot of thought into. It is an interesting category mix. I think what I would say though, first, that the Jewish community as a whole, throughout history, has tended to be quite nomadic; the idea is you move on from one place to the next better place and so on and so forth. In many ways, I really can’t think of a better place than south Florida, and so I think it might be one of those that encourages longevity, such that for even the people who come with this recklessness of wanting to start anew and this desire to build and to set themselves apart from the places from which they came, I don’t know whether I see them moving on from that again. I wonder if Florida really is the place where they put down their roots.
I would again underscore what you said about the bonds of community. I think that even though there are obviously individual considerations in getting up and starting a new life, the people that I’ve met are all part of communities and these communities have very deep, abiding bonds. You have a duty to the community. You have responsibilities to the community. It’s not something in which you could just be an atomic individual and just go about your own life without regard for how it impacts others. I think Florida, in some ways, feels like Israel in the sense that you bump into people on the street, everyone knows each other. The Jewish community is congregated in specific places, in different cities. It is such that you can’t just disappear into the background—or at least it would be very hard to do so. Everyone is made to feel that he can be a part of the fabric of communal life if he wants to be, and most people that move there do want to.
Tamara, thank you. Paul, if we come to you, I just want to ask you to share a little bit about yourself and what you observe in Miami over the past years. You are one of the Latin Jews who’s come to make your home in south Florida. Tell us a little bit about yourself and also about the social and political circumstances that you think makes Florida the home that it’s becoming for so many people.
Sure. Thank you, Jon, and I wanted to thank Tamara, whom I had the pleasure of spending some nice time with to discuss this subject. It’s something that we are very proud of down here in south Florida, where we live and where we have extraordinary leaders, including Rabbi Yeshurun, whom you will hear from soon. Whether we’re originally American whether we’re religious or just culturally Jewish, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, or Mizrahi—we’re all here to be proudly Jewish and to confront anti-Semitism, wherever it rears its ugly head, whether it’s from the far right, from the far left, from Muslim extremists, and so on. That really unites us all.
I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw, Poland, who ended up going to Venezuela, where she met my father, who was American. He was a very proud American, as a matter of fact, who enlisted at [the age of] seventeen in the U.S. Navy. I’m kind of a microcosm of the discussion we’re having, because my father was fairly assimilated, he wanted to blend into the Venezuelan fabric, because Venezuela was one of the few places after the Shoah that welcomed refugees from Europe, from the Holocaust, and my family among them. We have a very large Venezuelan Jewish community here—as Tamara mentioned and I’m sure Rabbi Yeshurun will talk about—but I think it also goes to the issue that confronts us Jews in general, all over the world, but particularly here in the States, when we talk about tikkun olam, or repairing the world, versus the idea that we are a very particular people, that we have certain customs and a heritage and a history that’s common, that’s just ours—there’s a tension that exists between those two issues and [we struggle with] how to resolve it.
America, I’ve always said, has been a double-edged sword for us as Jews, wherever we came from. On the one hand, no country outside of Israel, no country in the Diaspora, has afforded us more security, opportunity, or freedom, which is amazing. It’s wonderful and that’s why we’ve thrived here and that’s why we have by far the second-largest Jewish community in the entire world. But the other side of that sword is that after being here for several generations, unfortunately, a lot of American Jews have lost touch with their heritage, with their background, with their proud history and veered off, not only from religion itself, but culturally also, and from their attachment to the one and only Jewish state, the state of Israel that we all love so much.
So what we try to do here always is to try to find ways to build bridges, to unite the community, because we come from all over the world. What’s also beautiful about south Florida obviously is we have great weather, we have the ocean right by us, and the only correction I would offer, as far as the title of the article, is that I would say we’re a combination of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, because we’re right on the water. We have the modern, we have the traditional, and really that’s what makes it beautiful—that we have the best of both worlds, the traditional and the religious and the secular and so on and so forth, all agreeing that the most important thing is that we have to protect and defend and advocate for the state of Israel.
I can give you an example. I’m very involved in a lot of Jewish organizations here. I’m a past president of our Michael Anne Russell JCC. I’m very proud to say that our JCC, as opposed to most JCCs in the country, which are 50-percent or 60-percent Jewish, somewhere in that range, the membership of our JCC is 95-percent Jewish, and everything we do at that JCC is Israel-centered. Tonight, there are going to be Yom ha-Zikkaron commemorations in synagogues and community centers all over south Florida. And of course, Israel is I think the only country in the world that has two memorial days—Yom ha-Zikkaron, to remind us the cost of having a Jewish state, and Yom HaShoah, which we observed recently, to remind us of the cost of not having one.
That’s something that we’re all very mindful of here. The Israeli consulate, the Israeli American Council, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council, all the synagogues and all the Jewish institutions, all the Chabads, are coming together to do events, to commemorate Yom ha-Zikkaron as well as to celebrate Yom ha-Atzma’ut, which will be coming up very, very shortly. At our JCC, we’re going to have a major event in a couple of days—we have a Yom ha-Zikkaron commemoration tomorrow, Yom ha-Atzma’ut on Thursday.
But to give you an example, we have probably 25 organizations, synagogues, and institutions that will be joining us. We’re going to have song and dance. At the JCC there we have a huge program where we have almost 1,000 girls who perform classical Israeli dance, and they go all over the world doing that.
It gives us a lot of pride. As I said, we celebrate all the Jewish holidays in a big way, we all come together from the disparate Jewish communities from all over. That’s always been one of my main objectives. How do we do that? We have a strong group of Orthodox Jews, we have Conservative Jews, we have Reform Jews, and as they say, when you get three Jews in a room, you’re going to have at least ten opinions. So how do we bridge that gap? What is the best way to do it?
[We also have] the Latino Jews and the Israeli Jews, who are less removed from the Shoah and who feel the issues of persecution more. Coming from Latin America, I can also tell you particularly in Venezuela, where I come from, having to deal with socialism and political upheaval was a major issue and is why many of us are here. For us being Latino and coming here is a way to create the best of both worlds, because as I say, there’s nothing more important than security and freedom that one can have. We feel here in Miami, in particular North Bay, where I live in Aventura, that we have the best of both worlds, where we can live our life freely as Jews, as proud Jews.
Let me ask you a couple questions. I suppose the first question is to what extent does the policy environment and the politics of south Florida facilitate and attract Jews who want to move there? How does it make possible the communal life that you’re describing? Has that been strategic and intentional?
I think partially it has, and sometimes it’s been serendipitous the way it’s happened. [Regarding] the wave of Latino immigration here, you had the Cuban immigrants that came back in the 60s and 70s and into the 80, then you had the Argentinian Jews who came here in the early to mid-90s after what happened there, with the Israeli embassy bombing and the AMIA bombing as well—that was terrible, dealing with Iran and Hizballah, which we continue unfortunately to have to deal with. Coming into 2000 with Venezuela and Chavez taking control and aligning with Iran and anti-American [groups] has also been part of the problem, so [Latinos] come here.
Israelis on the other hand have come over the course of some years, knowing that there’s a lot of opportunity, freedom, and security, and a welcoming Jewish community. In Aventura, to give you an example, we have probably eight or ten synagogues and maybe four or five Chabad houses, just in Aventura—and no churches, which is interesting. In Northeast Bay, there are probably sixteen or eighteen synagogues, including six or seven Chabads. It makes it really convenient and easy for Jewish people who want to have some kind of connection to our people and to Israel and to the cause to come here as well.
I own a Jewish deli, and the reason I’m in this business is because I love to connect people and I love the state of Israel and the Jewish people. So it’s a way to put everything together, to connect everything. I have a backroom where I’m the leader of a pro-Israel PAC, which brings down congressmen from both political parties, mayors, commissioners, governors. The only thing I ask is that they have to be genuinely pro-Israel and pro-America, and as long as they fit that bill, then we get them here.
We’ve had a lot of events here over the years and we continue to have a lot of events. I also have a lot of events for Israeli organizations. In the last few weeks, I’ve had an event for Israel bonds, for United Hatzalah with the Federation. And as a matter of fact, our Federation in another year is going to go on a mega-mission to Israel to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its independence, and just like we have before we’re going to have 800 to 1,000 people coming together to visit Israel and to celebrate Israel on its 75th anniversary. I think there are few places in the world where that happens, and I’m really looking forward to that as well.
And also Paul, if I listen to your last answer carefully, I think it supplied an elaboration of that point that you made to Tamara early on in this conversation. To you, the secret sauce of the communal vibrancy in south Florida’s Jewish community is the fact that Jews are congregating there from other places. And so the question is, why? What’s wrong with American Jews? Why can’t American Jews in their many cities—why can’t what’s happening in south Florida happen in Cleveland? And the answer—it seems that you’ve just suggested now—is that the Jews who are coming from other places, particularly in Latin America and Israel, have the experience of what it’s like to be threatened as a community and therefore come to appreciate something about American freedoms and security. That’s unique.
There’s no question about that. That’s exactly what’s happening.
It’s said that there are probably 600,000 or 700,000 Israelis living in the United States. For them, the situation’s a little different, because Israelis think very differently, culturally, philosophically, than American Jews and the Latino Jews, but what they’re experiencing after being here for a generation is that they’re having kids and they’re finding that, being in the American Jewish community and in the community in general, they are starting to get concerned that their kids will not follow their traditions, will not love Israel as much, will not marry a Jewish man or woman and so on.
So, touching on what Tamara talked about, one of the statistics that we’re really proudest of is that overall in America there’s an over-50-percent intermarriage rate [i.e., of Jews marrying non-Jews]. If you take out the Orthodox community, it’s over 70 percent. But here in my Miami, for example, in Miami-Dade, [the intermarriage rate is] 16 percent. The other thing is that I think over 70 percent of the Jews in Miami have visited Israel, which is an extraordinarily high number. So the Israeli Jews have figured out, have started to see, that they need to join the greater Jewish community in order to be relevant, in order to keep their traditions, and so it’s created a window of opportunity for us as community leaders to bring these groups together—the Latino community, Israelis—and really to celebrate our differences and at the core of it what unites us, and that is the state of Israel.
So my last question, Paul, at this point has to do with something in particular that Tamara was writing about and speaking about, and that has to do with the policy environment that’s designed to make it easier for Jewish families to send Jewish kids to private day schools. As a father myself and a person who signs tuition checks each and every month, many of us look with some envy upon all of the work that Alan Jacobs has done there, and I wonder if you could just comment on that, the extent to which it’s had an effect, and how hard it was to do. Could you tell us at all about that story?
Sure, absolutely. Yes, [Alan Jacobs] has done a terrific job. The school-choice program has been tremendous. It’s given us an opportunity to have many more thousands of our kids be able to go to Jewish day schools. As I’ve always said, I think there are three main things that we who fight so hard for Jewish strengthening and continuity have to keep in mind. Number one is that we have to make Jewish education more affordable and accessible. Number two, we have to make Jewish camps the same way—more affordable and accessible. And number three, we have to get our kids to Israel as soon as possible—there are great programs like Birthright, but we have to get our kids there earlier.
Our south Florida Jewish community and Florida in general have been very good with the school-choice program, which has made Jewish schooling more easily accessible to many families—I’m the proud dad of four kids who have gone or are going to Jewish day school—and though we’re bursting at the seams—barukh Hashem, there are waiting lists and so on—I gladly pay those tuition costs because to me there’s nothing more important, for my wife and myself, than giving our kids a solid Jewish education. In addition, we’ve created here in south Florida the high school in Israel program, the Alexander Bus High School in Israel Program, which sends kids to Israel continuously. There’s no better way to create ardent Zionists, young people, and future leaders, than to send them to Israel. Let’s face it. And those three basic points that I made, the three items that I talked about are, to me, key. And that’s why in south Florida we have worked so hard to make sure that all the distinct communities understand that we have to fund these organizations and institutions, so that we can strengthen our community and have continuity and continue to support the state of Israel.
Rabbi Yeshurun, for those of us, the members of the audience who are listening from Connecticut and from France and from Israel who don’t know what it’s like inside the religious sub-communities of south Florida, give us a tour. Tell us what it’s like there.
The south Florida Jewish community is a very, very eclectic community. You have Jewish people from all walks of life, of all kinds. You have Conservative, Reform, you have, of course, Orthodox, you even have ultra-Orthodox Jewish people here in Miami, primarily in Miami Beach and up in Boca Raton. It’s a very eclectic crowd and it’s a very fun community to be a part of.
Now, I would like to make a statement about some of the words that were said here. I mean, everybody’s describing it as a beautiful place to be, and it is really a beautiful place, but I would like to tell you that with the influx of American people—when I say that I mean Jewish people with American backgrounds, as opposed to Latin American backgrounds—there is a segregation between the Latin American community and the American-proper community. There is no question that, as of now, the Latin Americans are much more comfortable with their Latin American constituencies and their way of doing things, their way of understanding community and building community, than with those of the people they call the gringos.
The American Jews who are coming in here are trying to develop their own little communities. We’ve tried to put together an NCSY [National Council of Synagogue Youth] program for our Latin American teenagers, and I was talking to the NCSY director, [who explained that] they’re trying to superimpose a program from Pittsburgh and bring it here to Sky Lake Synagogue. It didn’t work. The Latin kids congregated in one part of the room and the American kids who were part of the program would congregate in another part of the room. I really think that this influx of so many American Jews from up north, from the East Coast, from the Northeast, is a blessed addition to the community—it’s bringing a different culture—but as of now I don’t see them meshing together. The communities are pretty much on their own, adding to their own numbers from their own countries. I haven’t yet seen a mixed American-Latin American congregation.
If I can ask you about that: Paul was talking about the different generations of immigrants who’ve come from the Caribbean, from Central America, and from Latin America. If you are from a Cuban family that came in 1968, I would presume that the experience of your children, who are born and raised in south Florida, is different from the experience of the families who came themselves, and one would wonder if those differences would dissipate over time.
They do. They do in the Cuban community—they’ve certainly been here for many decades and generations and there’s no question that the second and third, and maybe even fourth generations have totally Americanized. I even see it in my own community. These are Latin Americans who came primarily from Venezuela, from Caracas, and I see the children, the younger children, starting to prefer speaking English rather than Spanish, to the frustration of their parents who are saying to them, “Wait, you have to speak in Spanish. Spanish is very important. This is where you come from. This is your background. This is your story.” But kids are kids and they assimilate into the culture within which they find themselves, and there is no question that if it continues like this, even in Miami—which is a place where a lot of people spoke Spanish even before the influx of Venezuelan and other Latin American—it will happen. It’s just a matter of time.
Okay. I have a few further questions about the religious and spiritual life in the communities there. And I want you to feel free not to speak—I want you to be as honest as you can—and so you may not be speaking about any particular members of your own community, but to give observations that you have of the community at large and others that you visited.
I’ll give you an example from my own community. We have a kiruv community—when I say kiruv, this is an outreach community, made up of people who [have recently become] theologically aligned with Orthodox Judaism, traditional Judaism—and many of them come with their cars to synagogue [on Shabbat] and they are part and parcel of the congregation. They feel very, very Jewish. They understand their Judaism to be traditional Judaism. They’re not there yet, in their words, not always ready to commit to more and more [observance], but essentially the community’s a secular community and people feel very, very comfortable coming here.
I think one of the strongest common denominators—as Paul said—probably the strongest common denominator, is Israel, is Zionism. We have a very, very Zionistic community. Zionism is a very important issue here in the community. They’re all politically savvy, they all read, they’re all interested. They all travel to Israel, they all have Israeli friends, and they all speak Hebrew. It’s amazing. Latin Americans speak amazing Hebrew. In their schools, they have shliḥim from Israel and they somehow mastered the language. I mean, you take an average American from Connecticut and start speaking Hebrew with him, you’ll find that his level of Hebrew is very rudimentary. It’s very elementary. Latin Americans are very much speaking Hebrew and they feel a certain affinity to Israeli culture. I would say Israelis are more likely to socialize with Latin Americans than Americans from Connecticut, from Boston, from New Jersey.
But this is actually a question, I think a serious question, which is a dilemma for American Jews at large—based on some of Paul’s remarks before and some of what you’ve just said, just now—about the centrality of Zionism in the Jewish identity of religious Jewry there. One just can’t help but ask whether there’s something parasitic about the nature of the [American Jewish] community, which draws on the real flourishing and real creativity and real vitality that’s happening not in America at all, but in the state of Israel. Is that something that you worry about? Is that a problem that you see?
I think you mentioned something very important. In Israel—that’s a great example—in Israel for many, many Jews tradition was something they needed in order to be affiliated with Judaism when they were in exile, but now that we have the state they basically draw their identity, they anchor their identity, in their national aspirations, which come into full manifestation in a state, in a sovereign democracy, in an outpost of freedom that belongs to the Jewish people. There is some of that here.
There is no question that for many Latin Jews—and you can look at the structure of their own communities in Latin America—theirs were not strictly religious communities. They were again, traditional, masorti communities, aligning themselves theologically with Orthodox Judaism, with the principles of Orthodox Judaism, but nonetheless really extracting their Jewish soul from the Zionist institutions and of course the state of Israel. I do see [this in many] American Jews who come down and go to Miami Beach or to Hollywood or to Boca Raton—let’s say in Boca Raton, where you have a lot of Yeshiva University-[educated], Modern Orthodox Jews, who are both religiously committed in a modern way, a YU crowd and also very Zionist. In Miami Beach, you see a more ultra-Orthodox black-hat community, and their Judaism really revolves around the yeshiva, the learning, the kollel, the religious institutions.
I would say between Boca Raton and Miami Beach, in between, you’ve got this wedge of Latin Americans who have created their own ghetto, if you will. And speaking of ghetto—and Tamara mentioned something about the community being well dressed, well presented, certainly exhibiting a wealth, which you also mentioned Jon—we have to be careful. We have to be very, very careful. We are still a minority. We have to get involved with community programs that are not just serving the Jewish community. Otherwise, we will fall into the same stigma and the same profiling that come with Jewish people being very, very successful. We have to know that our responsibility is not only to build a Jewish community. Yes, in the beginning, that’s what we’re doing, but eventually when we establish our ourselves, we must build bridges and contribute to the general community. Otherwise, we will draw a lot of unwanted criticism because of the wealth, because of the success, because of the high education and so on.
I would like to pursue that in a minute, but first I want to stay with the building of Jewish institutions. In other occasions where there has been a concentration of Jewish passion and Jewish resources, the Jews have built institutions that have become enduring, that really mean something and have contributed to and even accelerated and elevated the intellectual and religious life of the community. And so I just wonder that, if there’s a concentration of Jewish passion and Jewish identity and Jewish resources that’s coming together in south Florida, is it possible to imagine a Lakewood being established there? Meaning, what do you think the likelihood is of real institutions of Jewish learning being established and growing there? How likely is that? What would stand in the way of that happening?
I think there is a chance. I will talk about the Boca Raton community here. I think there is a very good chance [of something like this happening] if it continues to grow. Already the Boca Raton Synagogue has created an amazing name for itself. It’s one of the most active synagogues in the Jewish world. And I think if it continues to grow, you may see some of that. I don’t know if it’s going to be the same Lakewood-style community, but it will certainly grow into something that would draw people from all over the world to send their kids to yeshiva here. I think [something like this could happen] also in Miami Beach.
I don’t think religious institutions of that size would find themselves being built in the Aventura, Hallendale area. It’s a different crowd. They may be building other institutions. For example, the JCC now is expanding. I think the JCC will create a very big name for itself. They will certainly make an impression. Social services are a big concern. The Federation here is very, very active with social-welfare programs, and Zionist and cultural activities. That may grow in that particular area. As far as the Conservative and Reform communities, they have already reached out into the general community, and they are very philanthropic when it comes to the opera, when it comes to sciences, when it comes to building institutions that are universal, that are general, that are not geared only to the Jewish community and they are making a very big difference there.
Paul, I do want to ask you to elaborate on something that Rabbi Yeshurun has just said about the way that this explosion of dynamism in south Florida’s Jewish community is being received by non-Jews there.
What Rabbi Yeshurun said is absolutely correct. I would further note that our greater Miami Jewish Federation, through its Jewish Community Relations Council, has made it a point as have many of us in leadership to do outreach to other communities, because we understand that we don’t live in a bubble, that we need to be a part of this greater community and we need to be accepted, we need to work with them, we need to listen to their concerns and their challenges as well, if we want them to help us with ours. So we have done much outreach into the African American community—we just had an event a week-and-a-half ago down in Overtown, which is in downtown Miami, with a Jewish artist and an African American artist as a way to start bringing our communities together and showing that what unites us is much better than what divides us, and looking into our history as oppressed minorities and beleaguered minorities, what we’ve had to overcome.
So there’s been that. There’s also been outreach in the Latino community that we’ve also done with churches. Next week, the Israeli consulate is doing a major event at an Episcopalian church, where we expect to have 300 people. So that work is well underway. And we are very mindful that we are blessed to live in this community. Like you and Tamara said, Israel is the place and [its citizens] do all the hard work and the heavy lifting, but if you’re not going to be in Israel, this is a darn good place to be as well.
Okay so with that, for the ladies and gentlemen who are joining us who have not been in Israel for Yom ha-Zikkaron and Yom ha-Atsma’ut and these other days, here’s what’s going to happen now: in about one minute—Tamara you should unmute yourself so that we can hear the siren through your audio feed—the entire country will stop as a siren blasts for a full minute, and the way that this is observed is that women and men typically stand in silence. I’m going to turn my camera off, you’re welcome to do the same, and then afterwards we’ll reconvene with a few final questions, and then, ladies and gentlemen, it’ll be time for your questions. So please think of them and feel free to write them in the Q&A box at the bottom of the screen.
[Here a siren blasts, marking Israel’s Memorial Day, on which its fallen servicemen, its casualties of war, and its victims of terrorism are all remembered.]
Okay. I think the question that inevitably comes to mind, when you pause to think about the sacrifices made by the women and men who’ve fallen to secure Israel and the Jewish state, has to do with this: Tamara, the essay is called “Jerusalem on the Atlantic” and it makes the compelling case, I think amplified by Paul and Rabbi Yeshurun here today, that if you’re going to live in the Diaspora, south Florida is one of the very best places to live as a Jew. But why live in the Diaspora? Isn’t it better to live not in the Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv on the Atlantic, but to live in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv? Do you have an answer to that?
That’s a big question, obviously made ever more moving by the siren that we just heard. It was very, very powerful here and we opened the doors of the office. When it does sound, no matter where you are or what you are doing, you stand, even if you didn’t know exactly at what time it was going to come. It’s very powerful. But I think that to envision a world in which American Jewry as a whole is able to make aliyah and live and reside in Israel, it would be incredible, but I don’t think it’s something that is feasible. We do see that the aliyah rates from American Jews are significantly lower, percentage-wise—obviously it’s a much bigger community—but lower than other communities that really have immigrated to Israel in much bigger numbers over the years, and not just because of persecution, but for positive reasons.
I was just meeting with someone the other week from Australia who said that everyone that he grew up with had moved to Israel and he tried to move to Israel, but it didn’t work out career-wise in the way that he wanted. So he’s now in America instead; he’s a lawyer in Washington, DC. And so there are things that prevent people from moving for variety of reasons. As I said, I don’t think Miami, I don’t think anywhere in the United States, will ever be the first place that anyone should choose to live, but I think that Paul put it very, very nicely when he said it’s the next-best option, as I tried to argue in my piece.
If I could say something about that, Jon. It may surprise some people in the audience, but I actually believe that aliyah to an extreme extent will be detrimental to Israel. I think we need to have Jews in the Diaspora. If we want to have a strong Israel, we need to have a strong Jewish Diaspora with people who can lobby here, who can lobby the local government, who can lobby in Europe, who can lobby in the United States. Woe to the state of Israel if all the Jews leave all their countries and come to Israel. We need a very strong, committed, Zionist Diaspora, so that when our governments locally here in the United States or in Europe or Latin America, when they decide to make a statement, they come to it after having met Jewish leaders in the community who understand the Israeli cause, who understand the plight of the Jewish people. We must have at least a residual force in the Diaspora of committed Jews who decide to remain here and lobby their constituents wherever they live.
So this gets to one of the questions that one of our audience members, Robert, is asking. Robert asks about this issue of the ghettoization of Jews. We are talking about an instinct for our community to concentrate and if that has the effect of creating a ghetto; we’ve spoken about that some. But in this particular context that Rabbi Yeshurun is asking about, having to do with the U.S.-Israel relationship, it does make me want to ask you guys about something. When I think of the real strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship, I don’t only think of Jewish leaders such as yourselves. I also think of the many millions of committed Christians in America who are philo-Semitic and love the state of Israel and because of whose strength a great many of our political leaders also come to support the state of Israel. I wonder if you could just speak about the relationship between Christians and Jews in south Florida, especially as this community is growing and flowering as it is.
I can take that if that’s okay, Jon. As you had mentioned before, and as we discussed, it’s really important for us Jews to reach out to the greater community, to the Christian community, of course, which is the largest community here. I totally agree with what Rabbi Yeshurun said, that to promote and defend the state of Israel, we need to be able to advocate throughout the Diaspora. In order to do that, we have to have good relations with Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and every other denomination or race—African Americans, Asian Americans, and so on and so forth.
We are doing that here in south Florida. I mentioned before that the Israeli consulate is going to have an event with a huge Christian church downtown next week; we have groups like the Philos Project that are very actively involved; we have CUFI, Christians United for Israel, God bless them, who are 8 million strong, who are very strong advocates and defenders of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. So we have to make sure that we’re involved with them as well. We have some incredible Christian community leaders here too. One of them in particular, Gloria Garses from Guatemala, was almost singularly responsible for Guatemala being the second country in the world to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, after the United States, a few years ago. So that’s what we have to continue to work on.
And the other thing is that we have the Israeli-American Council, which has become a very strong organization. It’s growing dramatically. It started in LA; it’s now got chapters all over the country, doing all kinds of great programming which does exactly that: not only to bring all the Jewish community together but to do outreach into the non-Jewish world. Really that’s what it’s going to take. I think that here in south Florida we are at the epicenter of that movement. Like Rabbi Yeshurun said, there are challenges, no question about it, but more importantly, I look at it as an opportunity to bring all our communities together, to strengthen each other, to help each other, and to advocate for the Jewish people and the state of Israel.
My final question, Tamara, is for you. Is what’s happening in Florida, as you said in your introductory remarks, an example and answer to problems and dilemmas that are plaguing other Jewish communities in the United States, or are the confluence of factors that are so specific to Florida—the immigrant populations who are moving there, the concentration of passion and resources there—are those things so specific that it’s an exception?
I think that’s a really great question, Jon, and I’ll answer it by deflecting. I do think it is both. I think there’s been a very unique confluence of factors, the social and political environment that already existed in Florida, the types of Jews who have chosen to make a home there, both based on the proximity of Miami and the status of Miami as a gateway to the Americas, and as well the appeal of south Florida to Israelis who I think find it quite easy to acclimate, because of some similarities to both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I think there’s a confluence of factors that will be very hard to replicate elsewhere, but I do still think that there’s a lot for the American Jewish community to learn from.
I think that in my experience—and I’m someone who wasn’t raised in the United States, [but in Great Britain], I was raised in a very different kind of community, a much more close-knit community—the American Jewish community tends to think in restrictive boxes surrounding what are our greatest challenges. What should we invest in? What kind of Jewish life do we seek to perpetuate? And I hope that Florida will serve as a model to show that a successful Jewish community is a pro-Israel community. A successful Jewish community seems by and large to be one in which there aren’t strong divisions among religious denominations. I will note that we haven’t touched so much on Reform and Conservative denominations, but the synagogues I attended and the rabbis that I spoke to from those denominations were very successful and had great levels of attendance.
I think there’s also something unique in that the kind of people who make up Rabbi Yeshurun’s community—as he described it, an outreach community—really are secular. I found it interesting Rabbi Yeshurun that you use the term secular even though they’re attending your shul. They’re choosing to come to you when they could just as easily go to a Reform or a Conservative rabbi and be part of a community in which not everyone is halakhically Jewish and not everyone is acting in a way that perpetuates Jewish continuity. So I do think there’s a lot that the rest of American Jewry can learn. I just hope that as south Florida balloons, enough energy and resources are put into conducting the right surveys, sending the right people, making sure that what’s happening there isn’t cut off from American Jewry in the centers of American Jewish life, in New York and Chicago and elsewhere, because I do think that would be a mistake. So that’s my non-answer: it’s both.
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