The Jewish community in Florida is largely stereotyped as a legion of Northeastern bubbies and zeydies transplanted to the warm, south Florida climate. However, the swampy wilds of north Florida have been home to a growing Jewish community for hundreds of years.
Jewish communities have thrived in the American south since the late 17th century. According to the Goldring/ Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, until the 1820s there were more Jews in Charleston, South Carolina than New York City. Many Jews got their start as peddlers, roaming south from the northeast to sell their wares.
Up until the 1960s the small Jewish community in Gainesville comprised much of the merchant class operating department stores, pharmacies, even a Gator gear shop selling University of Florida souvenirs. Barry Baumstein and Howard Rosenblatt reminisced in the MobileBooth about the stores that used to line Main Street. Baumstein’s grandfather owned Ruddy’s Department Store on the south side of Main, his father owned a shoe store down the street, and his Uncle owned a men’s clothing shop. There was one tiny synagogue in town.
Jewish Gainesville has grown considerably since Barry was a boy. There are now a few synagogues, as well as a new Hillel building which serves the largest Jewish student population in the country. However, most of the Jewish owned stores of the 1950s and 60s are gone. “A lot of the Jewish merchants pushed their children into professional or academic fields,” explained Rosenblatt.
While Gainesville’s Jewish community has boomed, many formally thriving southern Jewish communities have dwindled in size. The community in Dothan, Alabama, just twenty miles from the Florida border, has diminished so drastically that recently the community started a “resettlement project” offering Jewish families $50,000 to move south. Tempting.
For more information on Floridian Jewish History and the Southern Jewish Experience check out the Southern Jewish Historical Society and the digital archives at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life.