History of the Jewish community in Key West

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.
Check back soon for updates
for more history of Jews in Florida visit
www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org
Jewish Key West
Telephone
305-304-0290
Rabbi Yisroel &
Rebbetzen Judy
Finman