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Jewish immigrants add spice to Miami's demographic makeup
JTA / January 5, 2006

By Larry Luxner

AVENTURA, Fla. — Paris restaurant owner Philippe Goldenstein was walking to synagogue one day when an Arab threatened him in the street, shouting "dirty Jew."

That's when Goldenstein decided it was time to say au revoir to France — and bienvenidos to sunny Florida.

In October 2003, the Goldenstein family — Philippe, his wife Katia, and their two small children Joshua and Noemi — moved into the upscale Miami suburb of Aventura, and opened up the area's very first kosher French restaurant. Named Weber Cafe after the restaurant he had in Paris, the waterfront eatery was an immediate hit, with its Nicoise salad, crκpes, pastas, quiches and other dairy dishes.

On a typical evening, diners at Weber Cafe can be heard chatting amiably in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew.

"We had been here on vacation before, and liked it. My wife didn't want to go to New York, because it reminded her too much of Paris," said Goldenstein, the product of a Polish father and an Algerian mother. "Here in Miami, we have everything — the beach, palm trees, synagogues and Jewish schools. The Jewish community has taken very good care of us."

Less than a mile from Goldenstein's restaurant is the cheerful three-bedroom apartment of Gisela, a Uruguayan Jew who asked that her last name not be used because her family's immigration status hasn't been finalized.

Gisela and her husband Miguel owned a shirt factory in Montevideo, where they had a beautiful apartment as well as a summer beach home. But when the Uruguayan economy imploded in 2000 following a massive currency devaluation in nearby Argentina, the family had to close the factory and leave their country.

"We first went to Atlanta, where we had three kiosks in shopping malls selling leather belts, but our children weren't adapting there," she told JTA. "They said they felt like the only kids in the world that were Latin but not mestizo. There were no Jews where we were living, and they couldn't integrate into any group. So after three years we decided to come here."

These days, Gisela works as a teacher's assistant at Toras Emes Academy, an Orthodox Jewish day school in North Miami Beach. Even though she isn't thrilled with South Florida — she complains that the locals are disrespectful and unfriendly — her kids are much happier here, and her husband has found a good job selling motorcycles.

Gisela and the Goldensteins are but two examples of the influx of foreign-born Jews flooding Miami-Dade County — even as the county's overall population continues to shrink.

A recent study by University of Miami researcher Ira M. Sheskin found that 31% of the county's adult Jews were born outside the United States. That's a higher percentage than any other Jewish community in the nation, and it's up from 23% in 1994. Some 7% of Miami-Dade's Jewish adults were born in South America, while 5% each were born in Central America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Overall, the study reports, Miami-Dade has 113,000 Jews, down from a peak of 218,500 in 1975, when one-third of the county's Jews lived in North Miami Beach.

Since then, thousands of Miami-Dade residents have moved north to Broward and Palm Beach counties, though immigration from outside the United States has helped stabilize the community.

"By far, the biggest reason for the decline is the age of the people who settled here originally," says Jacob Solomon, executive vice-president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, which commissioned the study. "As the population swelled from the late 1960s to late '70s, those who died were replaced by new immigrants, mostly retirees. But as Broward and then Palm Beach and Florida's west coast became more popular, the whole complexion of Miami in general changed, from being a sleepy retirement community to a vibrant, international business center."

Since 1994, the number of foreign-born Hispanic Jewish adults in Miami-Dade has doubled to around 9,000; they now account for 10.3% of the county's total adult Jewish population. Of those 9,000 who consider themselves Hispanic Jews, 29% come from Cuba, 18% from Argentina, 16% from Colombia and 15% from Venezuela — though the vast majority of Cuban-born Jews arrived immediately after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

Helping ease the transition for more recent arrivals is Graciela Chemerinksy of the Latin American Migration Program (LAMP), a division of Jewish Community Services of South Florida Inc.

Between July 2004 and June 2005, says Chemerinsky, LAMP received 174 new cases, of which 55% came from Argentina. The remaining 45% were from Venezuela, Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.

"Some of these people come with money, and most of them are professionals. They're educated and bilingual. Most of them don't ask for financial help, but rather information, orientation and jobs," said the Argentine-born Chemerinsky, estimating that 92% of her clients are in the United States legally. "We receive them, give them all the information they need, and put them in contact with immigration attorneys, public schools and synagogues."

Solomon said that in addition to the "extraordinary influx of Jews from Latin America" — which has eased considerably since a strict new U.S. visa program took effect in 2002 — "we've also been dealing with a rapidly aging Jewish population here, many of whom were European refugees who came to New York and then migrated again to South Florida. They've outlived their resources and have come to rely not just on public support but also Federation-funded services."

Miami Beach, which was once the center of Jewish life in South Florida, has seen its population dwindle from 80,000 at its peak to around 20,000 today.

Solomon said the two core areas for new immigrants today are Aventura, which is adjacent to North Miami Beach right on the border with Broward County, and the Pinecrest neighborhood of Kendall in South Dade.

Interestingly, 46% of Miami-Dade's Jewish children under 12 are enrolled in Jewish day schools — the highest percentage of any Jewish community in the United States — while the rate of intermarriage is an unusually low 16%.

"The exciting thing about Miami is watching a community in high-speed transition," said Solomon, who's been at GMJF since 1981. "South American Jews came by the thousands over a few short years, while Jews from France are still coming. The Israelis are increasingly involving themselves in organized Jewish life. Many of them have made substantial amounts of money and have been successful."

Solomon predicted that because of rising anti-Semitism in France, "we're going to see substantially more immigration from France, and we're going to see it soon."

On the other hand, Rabbi Yisroel Frankforter, director of the Miami Semicha Program, says French Jews haven't had such an easy time relocating to South Florida.

"The Latinos who come find a Latino infrastructure already here, so they can go shopping, look for houses and everybody speaks Spanish," said the Orthodox rabbi. "But that doesn't help French people."

Just ask Herve "Eli" Karsenty, a waiter at Goldenstein's Weber Cafe. The native of Lyon lived in French Guiana and the Caribbean island of Martinique for several years before deciding to try his luck in Miami.

"I came with no money, no job, nothing," he said in reasonably good English. "My first job here was a dishwasher in a restaurant. When the boss asked me for a fork or a spoon, I didn't understand. But when you need money, you learn very fast."

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