EARLY SETTLERS BEFORE 1832 Many think of Miami as the center of Jewish life and culture in Florida, but it was just everglades when the first Jewish immigrants arrived in Key West and established a thriving community. While the exact date and identity of the first Jewish settlers in Key West in unknown, they were here when the city was incorporated in 1832.
ORGANIZED CONGREGATION By the early 1880's, Joe Wolfson, Abraham Wolkowsky and Mendell Rippa had organized the Jewish community. Many Jews had come here for economic opportunity or were shipwrecked and then decided to stay. All found escape from the Antisemitism that was rampant in Europe and Russia at that time. Together, they founded Bnai Zion in 1887.
ECONOMIC LIFE In the 1890's, so many Jewish pushcart peddlers were successfully competing with established merchants that the city passed an ordinance levying a $1,000 license fee (the equivalent of $27,000 now) on each pushcart. This prompted the Jewish peddlers to open their own stores and resulted in their becoming important and permanent pillars of the local economy.
POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT Also about that time, the Jewish population supported the Cuban Revolution of Jose Marti. Marti gave famous speeches from the porch of the home of one of our congregants, Louis Fine. This caused his porch to become a meeting place for political and intellectual discussion.
SYNAGOGUE Religious services were held in members' homes until 1907, when the congregation bought the office of Dr. John Maloney at the corner of Simonton and Southard streets.
THE DEPRESSION'S EFFECT
Through the 1920's Key West and its Jewish community thrived. Then, the departure of the cigar and sponging industries hurt the local economy, and by 1935 the population had dropped from 30,000 to 12,000 citizens. Only 12 Jewish families remained. To make matters worse, the Depression hit Key West hard. Fifty percent of the adult population was on relief.
REBUILDING When World War II broke out, Key West became a major military center, bringing in thousands of new and returning families, including the Jews.
Chabad opened its doors in Key West in 1994, and built a mikveh for women. Currently Chabad offers daily minyon and a Hebrew school. In 2005 Chabad will begin building a synagogue complex on Flagler Street.
In 2002 Bnai Zion was destroyed by arson. The culprits were never found. But Bnai Zion has risen from the ashes. A beautiful building with a 160 seat social hall and glatt kosher commercial kitchen is functioning. Spiritually it is being rebuilt also. A Family Learning Center was established in 2004, adult classes and social activities are increasing, and a Media/ Educational Center will be dedicated in January 2005.