By Sigurd Neubauer
South Florida now hosts the second largest Jewish community after New York, where an estimated 650,000 people live. While the trend in Jewish migration to the sunshine state is expected to continue, Tallahassee is simultaneously emerging as a center for conservative politics.
The full impact of COVID-19 on American life has yet to be fully understood.
The health crisis, which erupted in March 2020, nearly brought the country to its knees through draconian lockdowns and economic uncertainty. It has upended long-standing demographical trends favoring the larger metropolitan areas as remote work enabled Americans to relocate to their destination of choice, including to rural areas in the pursuit of a higher standing of living.
Among the clearest demographic trends ushered in by the pandemic is the migration of Orthodox Jews – mostly from New York, but also from Los Angeles and elsewhere – to Florida.
An estimated 1.9 million Jews lived in the broader New York metropolitan region before the pandemic, but a combination of strict lockdown regulations prohibiting large gatherings for religious services and life cycle events such as weddings, bar or bat mitzvahs and funerals, along with rising crime, prompted a record number of Jews to relocated to the sunshine state.
In Florida, which has long been a popular vacation destination for New Yorkers during the winter months, the new arrivals not only found better weather and a lower-key lifestyle, but a political climate nearly diametrically opposed to the lockdown orthodoxies embraced by many states around the country.
It’s governor, Ron DeSantis, a Republican, increased his national profile during the early stages of the pandemic by pledging to keep schools and businesses open. The combination of his pro-business policies, low-taxes and his school choice program, which enables students to attend private schools at public expense, along with no restrictions on religious services along with the obvious – better weather – served as critical factors for the migration wave. Jewish schools are also benefiting from the program.
In a separate essay on Jewish life in Florida, Tamara Berens writes in Mosaic that “5,403 Jewish children are now using the school voucher system in Florida for the current year, and 63 Jewish schools participate in the program. The quality, growth, and affordability of Florida’s Jewish schools is at least in part thanks to these factors.”
“We would have a lot more people move here if there were more available housing, says Josh Broide, a rabbi at the Boca Raton Synagogue.
“Inventory is low, but what’s available is too expensive.” The Jewish community of Boca Raton was built during the 1970s, which at the time included approximately 10,000 individuals, but the numbers grew exponentially over the past 20 years, he adds.
“Now, there are more then 160,000 individuals in Boca and Del-Ray, with the biggest growth rate taking place over the past 15 years,” the rabbi explains.
According to Barens, who poured over U.S. Census Bureau data for her reporting, “319,020 residents moved out of New York state between July 2020 and July 2021, and judging by Florida DMV statistics on license swapping, at least 61,000 of them moved to Florida.”
“More housing developments are coming, but they are immediately sold out.” In Boca, there are seven Jewish schools, all of them at full capacity. They are the fastest growing orthodox schools in America,” the rabbi says.
Florida is, of course, known for its large retirement communities, including Jewish ones, which have been humorously portrayed in popular culture such as “Seinfeld”.
But what has changed, the rabbi explains, is that people are moving to the state permanently.
“We would have a lot more people move here if there were more available housing” - Rabbi Josh Broide
“Whether or not this is sustainable is the question,” the rabbi says, while adding that most community leaders believe that the trend will continue, and even accelerate, over the next several years.
“The reason is that it is a very nice and comfortable Jewish community in Florida where the weather is great, people can keep their jobs through remote work. People really like living here, especially in the tri-county area,” he says, referring to the principal cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Hialeah, Hollywood, and Boca Raton.
With the trend of Orthodox Jews moving across the country to make Florida their home, Broide believes that Delray Beach will be the next phase of this unfolding saga.
With growing national interest in Florida, community leaders such as Broide are trying to figure out where the next synagogues, schools and ritual baths for women, should be built.
“Things are happening so fast and now its all about catching up with the trend of people wanting to move here, but we need to think out of the box, and proactively.”
He also predicts that as demand surges, the next phase of Jewish life in the sunshine state– but outside of South Florida – will be its West Coast or Orlando.
“Locally, the Jewish Federation is incredible. It is a convener of conversations but there are no simple solutions. The federation is also attempting to identify everyone who has moved to Florida over the past several years,” the rabbi explains.
But it is not only Orthodox Jews who are moving to Florida, but the great Miami metropolitan region has also become increasingly popular among their brethren hailing from crisis-ridden Venezuela, and before that, from Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere.
“Then there are Israeli-born Jews numbering in the tens of thousands. Each group likes to create its own institutions, which means there’s an abundance of synagogues, social clubs, kosher restaurants, and majority Jewish neighborhoods to choose from,” Berens writes in Mosaic.
Florida’s allure during the initial phase of COVID-19 was tied to the fear that the housing market was about to collapse coupled with a belief that housing in Florida was cheaper than in New York, providing an incentive for New Yorkers to sell their homes at the top of the market.
For the Orthodox, Broide says, it was the combination of being able to work remotely while at the same time not having to adhere to the mask mandate imposed in New York, which was optional in Florida.
“The world was shaken up by the pandemic and people wanted something different,” the rabbi says, adding: “South Florida is an incredible place to live and raise a Jewish family. I love Florida. – What is there not to like?” If it gets a little hot, one can always set up an air conditioner.”
Is Florida trending Republican?
It is not only Jews who are drawn to Florida. Over the past decade, between 2010-2019, Venezuelans fleeing the socialist dictatorship in Caracas have come to the United States. According to a survey cited by Tampa Bay Times, “about half of Venezuelans in the U.S. live in Florida.” And an estimated 335,000 Colombians have also made Florida their home over the past decades.
Orthodox Jews, along with Venezuelan and Colombian immigrants, lean Republican. These groups are also socially conservative.
Florida’s historic Cuban community is, of course, fiercely anti-communist, which begs the obvious question: is Florida trending away from being a swing state for U.S. presential elections into the Republican column?
During the 2020 presidential election, President Donald Trump dramatically improved his support among Florida’s Latinos. Whether or not America’s growing Latino community is trending Republican is, of course, a hotly contested topic as both parties vie for their support.
To discuss these trends and more, I reached out to Josh Hammer, the opinion editor for Newsweek, who himself is a recent Florida transplant from Colorado.
“Florida is at the frontier of turning into a light-red state,” he says, “it is becoming a new Texas, but not new Oklahoma.”
Hammer attributes the shift, which is trending statewide towards the Republican column, to DeSantis who “is the leader of the 21st century conservatives”. The governor is “not afraid of using state power against the left,” he says, referring to the recent high stakes political battle between Tallahassee and the Disney Corporation over what is appropriate curricula for school age children.
“During COVID, DeSantis was a leader. At that time, it became clear what blue states were about, whereas the Florida governor fought ‘Fauci-ism’. Many people, not just Jews, moved to Florida during COVID because one can live freely here,” Hammer asserts.
He predicts that DeSantis will win re-election with double digits this coming November. The state has “a very unique demographic with its diverse Latin immigrant community hailing from Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia.”
Hammer believes that there is a chance that DeSantis wins it statewide. In 2018, he barely won the election, Hammer points out.
“The governor understands the Orthodox Jewish communities, and regular Americans. One doesn’t have to be a religious person to recognize that the Woke agenda, which is what he’s fighting, only brings strife,” Hammer says.
By taking on cultural issues front and center, speculations are swirling about whether DeSantis has presidential aspirations. Whether or not Trump runs in 2024, is, of course, at this point unclear.
On potential tensions between Trump and DeSantis, Hammers says that it remains an open question whether the governor will run for the White House should the former president decide to do so. “Currently, neither one of them are making a ‘big deal’ about the other,” but Hammer predicts that Trump will run again. “We will see what DeSantis does,” he adds.
Under DeSantis, Florida has changed from a classical swing state and conservatives across the nation are paying attention. Especially in Texas. “Texas conservatives are jealous that Florida has DeSantis, and they have Greg Abbott,” Hammer says, who also happens to be a former Lone Star resident. Hammer believes DeSantis is America’s best governor.