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As Overall Community Shrinks, Jewish Miami Has a Foreign Face

January 6, 2006
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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 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, opening the area’s first kosher French restaurant.

Named Weber Café after the restaurant Goldenstein ran in Paris, the waterfront eatery was an immediate hit, with its salad nicoise, crepes, pastas, quiches and other dairy dishes.

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

“We had been here on vacation before, and liked it,” 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 and a summer beach home. But when the Uruguayan economy collapsed in 2000 following a massive currency devaluation in nearby Argentina, the family had to close the factory and leave.

“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 who 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. She isn’t thrilled with South Florida — the locals are disrespectful and unfriendly, she says — but her kids are much happier here, and her husband has found a good job selling motorcycles.

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

According to a recent demographic study by University of Miami researcher Ira Sheskin, Miami-Dade has 113,000 Jews, down from a peak of 218,500 in 1975. 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 Miami community.

The study found that 31 percent of Miami-Dade’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 percent in 1994.

Some 7 percent of those foreign-born Jews came from South America, while 5 percent were born in Central America and another 5 percent in the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

“By far, the biggest reason” for the Jewish population 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 the 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 percent of the county’s total adult Jewish population. Of those 9,000 who consider themselves Hispanic Jews, 29 percent come from Cuba, 18 percent from Argentina, 16 percent from Colombia and 15 percent 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 Chemerinsky of the Latin American Migration Program, a division of the Jewish Community Services of South Florida Inc.

Between July 2004 and June 2005, Chemerinsky says, LAMP received 174 new cases, of which 55 percent came from Argentina. The remaining 45 percent 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, who estimated that 92 percent 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 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 once was the center of Jewish life in South Florida, has seen its Jewish 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 on the border with Broward County, and the Pinecrest neighborhood of Kendall in South Dade.

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

“The exciting thing about Miami is watching a community in high-speed transition,” said Solomon, who’s been at the Miami federation 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.”

With rising anti-Semitism in France, “we’re going to see substantially more immigration from France, and we’re going to see it soon,” Solomon predicted.

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,” Frankforter said. “But that doesn’t help French people.”

Just ask Herve “Eli” Karsenty, a waiter at Goldenstein’s Weber Café. 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. “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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