My eye-opening, emotional trek around Jewish Florida

Following my retirement from the Anne Frank Trust in March, my husband Elon and I decided to spend some quality time in the United States.

Our trip started in Florida, home to the largest number of Holocaust survivors in the whole of America, and one of only seven US states mandated by state law to teach the Holocaust in public schools. While we were there, many of the Jewish educators and a large number of teenagers flew off to Poland to participate in the March of the Living, a global initiative which had apparently started in south Florida.

The first Jews came to live in the swamplands of Florida in 1763, as we were informed by our visit to the Florida Jewish Museum. We also discovered that in 1945, Bess Myerson became the first and only Jewish ‘Miss America’, refusing pressure to Americanise her surname and a source of ethnic pride as the horrors of the Second World War became known. But one section of the museum gave us a sobering reminder of the mindset of post-war America. In the display on Florida as a tourist destination, there were leaflets for Miami hotels advertising for ‘gentile only clientele’ or the more euphemistic ‘selective clientele’.

The Jewish community in south Florida numbers more than half a million, 10,000 of whom are Cuban Jews who fled Castro in 1959. Boca Raton actually has a 50 percent Jewish population, many of whom are ‘snowbirds’ – those who fly down from the northern cities and the UK to enjoy their second homes during the temperate Floridian winters and head home again once the suffocating heat and humidity start taking hold after Pesach.

Elon and I were both kept busy speaking at community events, as Yom HaShoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut all fell while we were there. We visited the Miami Holocaust Memorial, a searing figurative interpretation of the suffering by sculptor Kenneth Treister, comprising groups of life-size touchable bronze figures and a central towering column indicating the enormity of the cataclysm.

In April, I was invited to the White House to meet with First Lady Michelle Obama’s director of policy to share ideas about the ‘Let Girls Learn’ initiative. It was a somewhat surreal experience
entering the portals of one of the world’s most well-known buildings, walking up the grand staircase and being greeted with ‘Welcome to the Office of the First Lady’.

We also drove upstate to Orlando to meet Harris Rosen, the remarkable Jewish entrepreneur who had built the city’s best known hotel chain.

To give something back, Rosen started investing in the education of children in an impoverished black Orlando neighbourhood called Tangelo Park. Rosen has remained continuously dedicated to this project for more than 25 years, not only donating significant amounts of money, but taking a hands-on interest in the children. Through this man’s determination, the community has turned itself around, its crime figures plummeted, while its college graduate numbers skyrocketed, and those very kids are now community leaders, lawyers, doctors and police chiefs.

When we asked Rosen what had made him go into the hotel industry, he explained that his late father had worked as a sign writer for the Waldorf Astoria in New York. One day when the 10-year-old Harris was visiting his father at work, they had stepped into the elevator and there was Marilyn Monroe, who gave young Harris a friendly hug. That was it – career decided. Hotels were where he wanted to be.

During our stay, America lost two of its legends, Prince and Muhammad Ali. For a few days in each case, the interminable political analysis of the US primaries was overruled by the lives and deaths of these two equally influential and talented figures.

The divisive issue of gun control was forefront after the Orlando nightclub atrocity. Frustrated Democrat representatives, led by veteran civil rights campaigner Congressman John Lewis, staged a 24-hour sit in on Capitol Hill, to try to force a further vote on Senator Dianne Feinstein’s gun control bill that had been outvoted by the mainly Republican Senate.

Elon and I were perplexed at the number of gun shops we saw while driving around the suburbs, where anyone can just walk in and buy an assault weapon. Elon, as a former journalist and IDF combat soldier, took it upon himself to contact all the TV stations and local politicians, suggesting that anyone entering a gun shop, even to enquire about weapons and ammunition, should be filmed by the shop’s CCTV cameras and entered into a nationally shared register.

The owner of the gun shop where Omar Mateen had bought the weapons used in Orlando, had actually reported his suspicions to the FBI, but there had been no way of tracing him prior to the shootings.

Our time in south Florida was energising, fascinating, and eye-opening. We met some wonderful people and travelled around the US and Mexico. But now it is equally fascinating to be home, albeit to a dramatically changed UK.

About the Author
Gillian Walnes is the co-founder, Anne Frank Trust UK
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