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Florida Matters: Jews Play Important Part In Florida's Story

Despite not being officially allowed to live in Florida until 1763, Jewish people escaping expulsion and exclusion were among the earliest settlers of the state.

A new comprehensive history – "Jews of Florida: Centuries of Stories" – takes a look at that historic individuals who include politicians, business leaders, artists and Nobel Prize winners.

man holding branches with grapefruits
Credit Florida State Archives
Florida State Archives
Morris Lewy of Lakeland in the 1920s, holding a branch full of grapefruit.

Author Marcia Jo Zerivitz told Florida Matters host Robin Sussingham that many early settlers in Florida came from Europe, where their religion prohibited them from owning land. They moved around a lot in Florida to keep working amid constant anti-Semitism, she said.

“They couldn't own land. So they were very attracted to Florida because it was an economic opportunity was religious freedom and they could work the land,” she said. “That's why to so many of the early pioneers… Florida was attractive, because they it was a way for them to be independent, not have to work for someone else to support their family. And that's what they were looking for. They were looking away to support their family in freedom.”

Zerivitz has spent the past 35 years collecting stories of Jewish families in Florida. That work first resulted in the Mosaic Project, a traveling exhibit in the 1980s which now a part of the Florida Archives. Now, many parts of the collection are based in Miami Beach, at the Jewish Museum of Florida at Florida International University.

The new 400-page book, she said, provides Floridians an opportunity to learn about contributions of Jewish people in the state. But it also offers people an understanding of how this state not long ago was restricting Jews access to hotels, swimming, restaurants and country clubs.

“This idea always just stops people in their tracks,” she said of laws that date from the state’s discovery by Spanish explorers to anti-Semitic deed restrictions in South Florida in the mid 20th century.

Zerivitz said it’s equally important that Jews in Florida understand how deep their roots go back in the state. Continuity of faith is a critical tenant of Judaism, she said.  

book cover

“Jews have made…enormous contributions to the development of Florida in every area,” she said. “And the fact is that we ourselves need these stories, these roots to ensure our continuity.”

I’m the lucky one who guides the WUSF News team as it shares news from across Florida and the 13 amazing counties that we call the greater Tampa Bay region.
Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.
Christy Oshana is the Producer for Florida Matters, WUSF Public Media’s public affairs show.