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Instead of Israel, Jews choose Miami
South Florida's large Jewish population attracts those escaping anti-Semitism in their native countries.
By TAMARA LUSH
Published December 7, 2004
AVENTURA - Katia Goldenstein and her husband had a fabulous apartment in Paris, a close-knit family and a successful kosher cafe near the Montmartre tourist district.
But after the cafe's windows were shattered six times during anti-Semitic attacks, the Goldensteins decided to give it all up.
They considered moving to Israel but chose Aventura, a Miami suburb known for its sizable and international Jewish population. "I like Israel, but for the kids, I'm so afraid," said Goldenstein, 31. "It's safer for them in Miami."
Now, the Goldensteins are serving bowls of their kosher French onion soup at a restaurant they opened eight months ago in an upscale shopping plaza near Biscayne Boulevard. On this first night of Hanukkah, they will join thousands of other young Jewish families who will light their menorahs in Miami, instead of in their home country.
Although there are few statistics available, community leaders in South Florida say that Jews from Paris to Paraguay are increasingly choosing Miami over Israel as a place to live, work and raise families.
"Miami is serving a major need in Jewish life," said Rabbi Mario Rojzman, who left Argentina 21/2 years ago and now leads a synagogue in Aventura.
Thirty-two percent of adults in Miami's Jewish community are foreign-born, according to recent estimates by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
"Miami is a community which has all the benefits of the United States but with a strong and vital Jewish community," said Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. "The combination makes for an inviting point of destination."
The diversity is seen in the restaurants, the synagogues and especially in the private Jewish schools. For example, of the 110 children at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Aventura, 23 are from Argentina. Others are from France, Colombia, Venezuela, Russia and Morocco.
"When one of the students has a birthday, we gather in the hall and sing Happy Birthday in as many languages as we can," said principal Laurie Farber.
David Saltman, president of the Jewish Community Services of South Florida, said his agency has seen a steady influx in French and Argentine Jewish immigrants in particular.
Over the past five years, Saltman's agency has helped about 1,300 Argentine families move to Miami. He estimates there are about 5,000 Argentine Jews in Miami.
The French Jews are coming to Miami because of the increase in anti-Semitism, he said. His agency has taken about five calls in the past month from French families looking to relocate.
Attacks against Jews and synagogues have increased in France, along with the rise of the Arab population, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
"I went to France three weeks ago, and the France I saw was not the same France as 15 years ago," said Hervey Karsenty, a France-born Jew who works as a waiter at the Goldenstein's Weber Cafe. "I felt the anti-Semitism."
France has the world's fourth-largest Jewish population, with about 650,000 people. Argentina is seventh, with a quarter of a million adherents. Florida is home to about 625,000 people of Jewish faith.
South Florida also is a popular destination for Jews from Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. The immigration from South America was so great that Saltman's agency opened the Latin American Migration Program in 2001 to help people of Jewish faith from those countries.
There are a few reasons why people are choosing Miami over Israel, he said. Israel is costly, there is high unemployment and security is a problem.
"Particularly in the last four years with the second intifada ," Saltman said, referring to the wave of violence and political conflicts between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis.
And for Latin American Jews, Miami seems like home because of a very basic reason.
"There's a well-established Spanish-speaking community," Saltman said, citing the sizable Cuban Jewish population already in the area.
For the Argentines, the migration is largely due to the country's economic downturn, which began in 2002 and 2003, but experts say there is anti-Semitism there, also.
Rojzman decided to leave Argentina after more than a decade of fighting for justice; he was a leader in trying to spur the Argentine government to make arrests in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that led to the deaths of 85 people.
Unsuccessful in his activism, Rojzman decided to move his wife and five children to Miami.
"Knowing that 11 years (after the bombing), there is no one in jail, it's a message that the Jewish community is not important enough," he said. "I don't hold deep hope for my community in Argentina."
Like thousands of others, Rojzman thought about living in Israel. But when he considered the future of his five children, he chose Miami. "Everyone knows that Israel represents the homeland, but the situation there is very hard," he said.
Rabbi Shloime Halsband of the Beis Mosiaj temple in North Miami Beach, a community adjacent to Aventura, has helped hundreds of Argentines over the past several years. From organizing weekend parrillas - traditional Argentine barbecues - to offering Jewish texts in Spanish, Halsband has tried to make his temple an emotionally safe place for the newcomers.
Halsband says passages about struggle and God's tests of the Jews contained in the Torah, the Jewish scriptures, is especially relevant to the recent immigrants.
"Some of the people had not been religious in Argentina," he said. "But the temple provided so many answers."
From obtaining immigration papers to navigating the American way of doing business, without bribes or crushing bureaucracy, the temple has helped guide the new arrivals.
"It's a different reality here," Halsband said. "But thank God America is what it is."