The community that made Miami Beach famous as the place to go for Jewish winter vacations and retirement has diminished, but the impact the population made on the island remains obvious in its Jewish landmarks.
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
In 1949, when the Florida Legislature ended the discriminatory practice of barring Jewish ownership of real estate, Miami Beach became the place to go for Jewish winter vacations and retirement, earning it nicknames like “Little Jerusalem” and “Shtetl by the Sea.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize winning author who wrote in Yiddish, made his winter home there.
“For me, a vacation in Miami Beach was a chance to be among my own people,” he wrote in My Love Affair with Miami Beach, a photo book for which he provided commentary right before his death in 1991. “In those days Miami Beach was a magnet for Jewish people – a place where they flocked like geese to rest and warm themselves in the sun.”
Home to a thriving Jewish community for decades, Miami Beach counted about 60,000 people in Jewish households in 1982, 62 percent of the total population. Today, that number has shrunk to less than 16,000, or less than 19 percent, according to surveys conducted by the University of Miami.
The decline is due in part to the death of elderly Jews, or their getting priced out of the city’s Art Deco revival; others have migrated to Broward and Palm Beach counties as greater Miami has grown more Hispanic.
While some Miami Beach landmarks – such as Wolfies, a 24-hour deli-style eatery popular among traveling borscht-belt performers such as Milton Berle and Henny Youngman – have closed, others remain fixed in the landscape. The Jewish population left such a mark on Miami Beach that there are tours dedicated to its impact.
The Jewish Miami Beach Tour,” run by the Miami Design Preservation League, explores the rise and fall of the Jewish population over the past 100 years, with an overview of architectural styles.
The “Jewish Food Walking Tour,” run by the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, highlights Jewish-owned restaurants in Miami Beach, past and present, with tastings from places such as My Ceviche, Aroma Espresso Bar, Pita Loca and, of course, key lime pie from Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant.
If you want to explore on your own, here are some of the must-see Miami beach landmarks:
Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU
301 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach
Housed in two historic synagogues, the museum offers visitors the chance to learn about the history of the Jewish people in South Florida, starting with its core exhibit, MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Florida. The museum’s site is the original location of the first synagogue in Miami Beach, Beth Jacob, which opened in the city’s South Beach neighborhood in 1929 because Jews were not allowed to live north of 5thStreet at the time. (One of the synagogue’s most famous members: Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky.)
Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach
1933-1945 Meridian Ave., Miami Beach
A hauntingly beautiful memorial built by Holocaust survivors and designed by architect Kenneth Treister as a reminder of lives extinguished in the Holocaust. The memorial includes a four-story-high arm tattooed with a number from Auschwitz, a Memorial Wall with thousands of names etched into it, and a lonely stone tunnel with the voices of Israeli children singing songs.
4525 Collins Ave, Miami Beach
An art deco gem, the famed, 631-room hotel has its own in-house kosher kitchen. The hotel underwent a $240 million renovation in 2009. The Eden Roc and its neighbor, the Fontainebleau, were designed by architect Morris Lapidus, a Russian Jewish immigrant whose Neo-baroque Miami Modern hotels have come to define the 1950s resort-hotel style synonymous with Miami and Miami Beach.
1701 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
The oldest Conservative congregation on Miami Beach and one of America’s most beautiful synagogues. Its impressive and eclectic Byzantine and Moorish architecture features a rotunda building and aluminum dome more than ten stories tall. The congregation has a long and venerable history as a spiritual home to the Jewish residents of Miami Beach for more than seven decades.
Temple Beth Sholom
4144 Chase Avenue, Miami Beach
The largest and oldest Reform Synagogue on Miami Beach. Temple Beth Sholom is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism and in the mainstream of liberal Judaism.
Temple Beth Shmuel
1700 Michigan Ave., Miami Beach
Known as “Circulo,” the Cuban Hebrew Congregation was founded in 1961 to provide a home for Jews from Cuba. The temple was designed by Oscar Sklar. It includes stained glass windows of the Twelve Tribes of Israel designed by Inge Pape Trampler. Mexican artist Naomi Siegman designed the candelabras beside the bimah.
Isaac Bashevis Singer Home
Surfside Towers Ocean Condominium, 9511 Collins Ave., Surfside
The author lived and wrote here from 1977 until his death in 1991. A plaque was placed on the building after being presented to his widow, Alma, in 1991, marking it as a literary landmark.
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