Home Breaking News The Jews of Key West: Making a home again in Margaritaville

The Jews of Key West: Making a home again in Margaritaville

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The Jews of Key West: Making a home again in Margaritaville

On any given afternoon, heaps of of guests right here patiently line up for selfies next to a brightly painted, 12-foot-excessive concrete buoy marking the southernmost point in the continental United States.

Appropriate behind this landmark, a less glaring monument overlooks the Atlantic Ocean for a few days a year: a menorah erected during Hanukkah by Chabad Jewish Center of the Florida Keys & Key West. Billed as “the nation’s southernmost menorah,” the gimmick is barely 1 way that Rabbi Yaakov Zucker attracts Jews among the two.5 million vacationers who flock to the Keys annually.

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“For a while, there was also a ‘southernmost Christmas tree’ and then they stopped putting it there. But I’ve continued my menorah tradition. Other folks esteem these things,” said Zucker, 49, who often cruises up and down Duval Avenue, the epicenter of Key West’s famous party strip, in a modified golf cart, chatting up Jews and trying to convince men to position on tefillin.

Key West is the southernmost among a string of islands off the southern coast of Florida (called the Keys) that are linked to Miami via a 113-mile highway that crosses the water. Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic devastated local tourism last year and large cruise ships have but to come, Key West’s inns are again packed with guests. Most are Americans who arrive by car from the mainland, however the quantity of international guests is growing.

Once Florida’s most populous metropolis in the 19th century, Key West today doesn’t even rank in the state’s top 150. But among its 24,000 or so residents are about a thousand Jews, about one-third of whom are Israeli expats, according to Zucker. Another thousand or so Jews are scattered in other places in the Keys, mainly in island towns such as Islamorada, Key Largo, Marathon and Tavernier.

“When I first came to Key West, I called my dad up and said, ‘They have to really fancy Jews right here. Each retailer has a mezuzah,’” recalled Sam Kaufman, the vice mayor right here and a regular at Chabad services and products.

That tradition dates back to the 1920s, when the local merchants’ association dominated that simplest these that resided permanently in Key West may operate businesses on Duval Avenue.

“The Jews weren’t full-time residents because there was no rabbi and no kosher meals. So they left on Thursday evening by boat and came back on Sunday,” Kaufman said. “After that ruling, the Jews became full-time residents.”

The Chabad center, housed in a dilapidated Lutheran church on Trinity Force, is a relative newcomer to Key West. Jews have lived since 1886 in this laid-back fishing metropolis nicknamed the Conch Republic, which has inspired hard-drinking celebrities from novelist Ernest Hemingway to songwriter Jimmy Buffett. That’s the year a massive fire destroyed Key West’s commercial district, creating opportunities for Yiddish-speaking peddlers and shopkeepers from New York, according to Arlo Haskell’s 2017 guide, “Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers and Revolutionaries (1823-1969).”

In the 1890s, some of these early Jewish pioneers helped remove weapons for José Martí’s anti-Spanish revolution in Cuba, simplest 90 miles to the south. And in 1899 — merely two years after Theodor Herzl’s first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland — the Federation of American Zionists opened a Key West branch to raise funds for an eventual Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Congregation B’nai Zion, a nonaffiliated synagogue with about 100 individuals, is the oldest synagogue in South Florida. Established in 1887, it occupies an total metropolis block along United Avenue, no longer far from its original location at the Sidney M. Aronovitz U.S. Courthouse, named after a prominent Jewish lawyer and third-generation Key West resident.

“A lot of Jews come to Key West to disappear from the radar,” said the synagogue’s Israeli-born rabbi, Shimon Dudai, 76. “Most of the time they develop into family.”

There can be a disconnect between the Israelis and local Jews, Dudai said.

“Local Jews don’t mix distinguished with the Israelis,” he said. “When I first came right here, I went to every retailer and met all the Israelis. I knew they weren’t the kind of these that would come to a place regarded as Reform. That’s the reason we’re no longer affiliated, although my congregation welcomes all streams of Judaism.”

Meir Mergi, 42, is originally from the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Ata. He’s lived right here for 20 years, selling T-shirts, other clothing and local souvenirs at his Duval Avenue store.

“I by no means planned to stay in America. It was supposed to be a three-month vacation,” Mergi said. “Key West is the correct place to be while you want a calm existence. I’m very happy right here.”

From April to June of 2020, as coronavirus infections spiked across South Florida, Key West and the opposite islands had been closed off to nonresidents. Police blocked the Overseas Highway at the boundary with Miami-Dade County.

“In the event you didn’t explain an ID that you lived in the Keys, you couldn’t pick up in,” said Zucker, who is also a chaplain with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. “To select up back into metropolis, I had to write down our Israeli guests a letter that they had been coming to leer me.”

These days, Kaufman is optimistic about the long race. Crime is low and Key West is packed with guests.

“There’s pent-up demand for tourism, it’s a safe place and it’s drivable,” Kaufman said. “During spring break, resort rooms had been going for $1,200 a evening, so we’re no longer really suffering.”

In fact, some Jewish retirees moved to the Florida Keys during the pandemic to escape public health restrictions up north.

“I have to have gotten at least 30 phone calls from folks wanting to perambulate to the Keys from New York and Chicago,” said Zucker, who hosted over 100 folks at Chabad’s Passover seder this year. “After coronavirus, they want to be off the grid. They don’t want to be in substantial cities. Other folks saw what happened, and no person has insurance that some original variant obtained’t happen again.”

The Keys Jewish Community Center, located at Mile Marker 93 along the Overseas Highway, is the finest synagogue between Key West and Homestead on the Florida mainland.

The congregation’s president, Joyce Peckman, who settled right here in 2003 from New York, said that about half of the 170 member families have 2nd homes in other places, with some of them spending simplest a few weeks a year in the Keys. The JCC once had a Hebrew faculty with 10 children, but they all grew up and moved away. Extra than half intermarried, she said.

“If I had babies, I’d no longer perambulate right here,” Peckman said. “The vibe right here in the Upper Keys is awfully laid back. Other folks came right here for diving, fishing, relaxing and getting away from it all. But there are very few Jews, and while you have children, you want them to be someplace where there are other Jewish children.”

Gili Sanouf, a 17-year-old senior at Key West Excessive School, agrees. An Orthodox Jew, Sanouf had his bar mitzvah celebration at the local Chabad. He spends his after faculty hours selling T-shirts, fridge magnets, Mile Zero bottle openers, bathing matches and Christmas ornaments at Happy Rooster, the souvenir store owned by his parents, who came right here 20 years ago.

“There are really no Jewish children my age right here. There’s simplest bars and medicine; it’s very limiting,” the teenager said. “After graduating, I want to perambulate to Israel, join the army and concentrate on cybersecurity.”

Sanouf brightens each time the occasional Israeli vacationer walks into his store and he will get the chance to practice Hebrew. And nearly every day, non-Jewish vacationers inquire about his kippah.

“They ask me, ‘What’s that thing in your head?’” he said. “I explain to them that there’s something above me, and that I’m no longer the finest thing that matters.”

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The Jews of Key West: Making a home again in Margaritaville