The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU is housed in two historic buildings that were formerly synagogues for the first Jewish congregation on Miami Beach. Our organization purchased the buildings and the adjacent parking lot and has spent $4 million to restore, furnish and equip the buildings for use as a state-of-the-art museum.
Jews began to settle in Miami Beach as early as 1913. Due to restrictive covenants or clauses in land deeds, they could not live north of Fifth Street. The area became a Jewish ghetto, therefore the earliest synagogues were built in this neighborhood.
Congregation Beth Jacob (founded 1927) was the first Jewish congregation in Miami Beach to erect a synagogue in 1929 at 311 Washington Avenue. As the congregation expanded in the 1930s, a new, larger building was built (1936), next door at 301 Washington, designed by congregation member and noted Art Deco architect Henry Hohauser.
When 301 was completed as the "grand" sanctuary, 311 was used as a social hall. The original buildings served as the religious and cultural center for the South Beach Jewish community for many decades through the heyday of Jewish life here. In 1986, when the Jewish population declined, the congregation abandoned 301 and returned to its original building next door (311) for religious services. Due to vandalism and the effects of the elements, the 301 building deteriorated and was destined for demolition.
- Primary Space, 301
The Museum's primary building (301) was erected in 1936 as the second sanctuary for Miami Beach's first Jewish congregation (Orthodox).
This structure boasts 77 colorful stained glass windows, eight Art Deco chandeliers, marble bimah, decorative exterior concrete relief panels and a copper Moorish dome. In its original configuration, the building held 850 people in theater-style seating with a women's balcony. The floor was sloped to allow worshippers to see and hear the religious services.
The edifice at 301 Washington Avenue served as the religious and cultural center of the South Beach Jewish community through the heyday of Jewish life there from 1936-1986. In 1980, the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building was slated for demolition to allow construction of an apartment building on the site. At that same time, MOSAIC, the organization that created a traveling exhibition on Florida Jewish history, was looking for a permanent home to continue to expand, preserve and display MOSAIC's significant collection.
In 1993 a wonderful marriage was made between a vacant synagogue (slated for demolition) with MOSAIC— a traveling organization with a mission to preserve the rich heritage of contributions by Jews to the development of the State for nearly 250 years.
Architect and contractor Ira D. Giller sought to create juxtaposition between the old and the new. He responded to both the need to restore original architectural elements and transform an abandoned, deteriorated building into a functional museum.
The two-year restoration process was completed in 1995 at a cost of nearly $2,000,000. The balcony where women sat during worship services was converted to office space with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Museum floor. The restored structure was topped off by the restoration of its original copper dome as a neighborhood landmark – one that has beckoned and welcomed waves of refugees to the area.
In 1997, the Museum was honored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for its outstanding contributions to the regentrification of the neighborhood and for restoration of the building.
- 311 Building
Miami Beach's first synagogue, the original home of Congregation Beth Jacob, was designed by architect H. Frasser Rose and built in 1928-29 at 311 Washington Avenue for $25,000. The site was chosen because at the time the synagogue was built, Jews were not permitted to live north of Fifth Street.
Its construction satisfied an urgent need of the small Jewish community of residents and winter visitors who had first settled on Miami Beach in 1913. It established that Jews were accepted and a permanent part of the resident population of the City.
Prior to this, Jews had been denied permission to construct a synagogue. They had to ferry across Biscayne Bay (and later the County Causeway, now the MacArthur Causeway, built in 1920) to attend religious services at B'nai Zion Congregation in Miami. When Orthodox Jews, who do not travel on the Sabbath and high holidays, joined the congregation, they and the winter visitors from Canada and Miami Beach residents held services in the Royal Apartments at 221 Collins Avenue.
Almost every Jew who was a permanent resident of Miami Beach between 1927 and 1932 was a member and financial contributor to the synagogue. The initial role of the Synagogue as the religious and social center of the Jewish community soon developed into being the Jewish cultural center as well. A Hebrew school was established, scholars, rabbis and cantors were invited and a mikvah (ritual bath for women) was built in 1944 for $35,000 at 151 Michigan Avenue.
The original building was dedicated on February 17, 1929. The founding officers were Lazarus Abramowitz, President; Jekuthiel Kaplan, Vice President; Morris Abraham, Treasurer; Samuel Guttman, Secretary; and Joseph Tilzer and Harry Levitt, building committee members..
By 1936, the congregation outgrew its original facility and constructed the second larger adjacent building for the synagogue at 301 Washington Avenue. Used as a synagogue for 50 years and then abandoned, this was restored and opened as the JMOF in 1995. Both buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Towards the end of the 20th century, Beth Jacob Congregation began to dwindle and moved all of its functions back to this original building. Many of its older members died. There were hardly enough members remaining to have a minyan (the ten men required for many parts of the religious services) and in 2005, the congregation went out of business.
That year (2005), the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU purchased the original synagogue (311), their primary space (301), which had been leased, and the parking lot for future expansion. The Museum needed room to enlarge its facilities beyond the confines of the adjacent building it had occupied since 1995. This purchase ensured that the buildings so rich in Jewish history would continue to be preserved and become a repository for the chronology of Florida's Jews.
The 311 structure underwent a one-year, $1 million+ restoration by architect and contractor Ira D. Giller and with support from individuals, Miami-Dade County, and the City of Miami Beach.
The former sanctuary on the main level of the building is now a multi-purpose room that houses a second exhibit venue for the Museum and is also used for public programs and special events. In 2007 the building was re-named The Jonathan Symons Building.
- Bess Myerson Gallery
In 2008, the two buildings were connected by a glass-domed Bessie's Bistro in the center court.
ABOUT THE NAME OF THE GALLERY:
In 1945, as World War II came to an end, Bess Myerson uplifted the mood in the Jewish community when she was crowned Miss America. Never before, and not since, has a Jewish girl received this recognition. In memory of the happy years her parents lived in the neighborhood around the Museum, Bess Myerson donated funds to build the Bistro, and also gave her archives to the Museum's Collections. Some of this archival material is on display in the Bistro, which now serves as a third gallery for the museum.