Lessons from the Miami disaster

Of all places, it is Miami, a city of hedonists and vacationers, that offers a profound lesson for US Jews


SURFSIDE, FLORIDA - JUNE 14: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attends a press conference at the Shul of Bal Harbour on June 14, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. The governor spoke about the two bills he signed HB 529 and HB 805. HB 805 ensures that volunteer ambulance services, including Hatzalah, can operate. HB 529 requires Florida schools to hold a daily moment of silence. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

When the kids were little, we’d escape the snow in the Northeast and go down to Miami Beach over the Christmas break. The American school year is as extreme as everything else here: nine months of study with only short breaks, and then a full three months of mandatory juvenile amnesia over the summer.

The flights were cheap and we camped out in a self-catering unit at the Savoy, an Art Deco hotel on the sleepy seafront at the southern tip of South Beach. Ten days with no lunch packs, no snow shovel and no sub-zero starts in the darkness: ten days of sun and swimming, Cuban food for the adults and limitless mac ‘n’ cheese in the microwave for the kids, catering by Walgreen’s pharmacy on Collins Ave.

The Savoy is a low, white-painted building where 4th Street meets the beach. Like most of the old hotels, it looks like an ocean liner driven onto the sand. North of 5th Street, the bacchanal begins, but these last few blocks of small hotels, holiday cottages and two-storey apartment blocks feel as remote from the rest of America as Key West, which is where the mainland ends, an hour down Highway 1.

Past the pool, a white wicket gate leads to the beach. Miami Beach resembles Tel Aviv more than any other American city. Early in the morning, the sands of South Beach have a similar feel to the Israeli beach: the same calm and beauty, the same strip of towering apartment blocks running up the shore, the same hints of a mad city either going to bed or erupting into life.

Bliss it was to be alive in that dawn, but to be in South Beach was “Jew heaven”. This ethnographic assessment comes from a minor character in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas. And it’s true.

Miami’s Jewish life is booming. Miami — and Florida generally — is one face of the American future. It’s a Spanish-speaking city, the capital of the Caribbean. Its Jewish population is twinned with New York, so it reflects the growing edge of demographic change: more Orthodox, more Israeli, and younger.

South Beach is one of the few places in the States where you don’t feel like an alien over Christmas. Not because Christmas doesn’t exist; on the contrary, you can’t go anywhere without hearing Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad”. But people in South Beach have more important things to do, like go to the beach or pose in cafés. And anyway, fake snow and tinsel don’t sit right with palm trees and flipflops.

The Cubans who escaped from Castro’s communist holiday camp across the water remade the city, and wrestled control of its politics from the WASP founders. Waves of immigrants from the failed states of Latin America have followed. Part of the fun of Miami is the sense that everything can change at any moment.

Eighth Street on the mainland is Calle Ocho, a Hispanic tourist strip neighborhood, but much of the city — again, like Tel Aviv — feels like a work in progress. The mansions of Fisher Island — Oprah, Mel Brooks, Gloria Estefan — are just moments from the slums. New people are always arriving, new construction is always going on. The harsh substratum of American life, and the sandy foundations of this city, are ever-present.

Ninety-nine people are still missing after the collapse last week of a condo in Bal Harbor, on northern South Beach. The people who lived in the block are mostly Jewish and Hispanic. The theory is that a leaky pipe from the swimming pool eroded the foundations.

Teams from the Homefront Command and Hatzalah came from Israel at once. At the Shul of Bar Harbor, families of people whose relatives are missing were called up to open the ark for Avinu Malkeinu. It’s worth finding the footage: it tells us something important.

Life changes in a moment. When the sands at Bal Harbor at swallowed up the American dream, the Jews of Bal Harbor didn’t turn to Ron Desantis, the governor who’s a hot tip for the post-Trump Republican vote in 2024. They didn’t turn to the Democrats, or the Twitter left, or anti-Zionist cranks like Jewish Voices for Peace, either. They turned to Israel and to the ancient prayers.

Only Israel has the expertise to dig their families out of the rubble — not the Florida ambulance teams. Only Judaism — and not a liberalism built on sand — can sustain people shaken to their foundations. Of all places, it is Miami, a city of hedonists and vacationers, that offers a profound lesson for US Jews.


Dominic Green is deputy editor of the Spectator’s World edition

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