Bessie Galbut, the oldest living member of the pioneering Miami Beach family the Galbuts was ever an optimist, even when the culture of Miami Beach wasn’t always the most welcoming of environments.
As recently as 1984, 50 years after the first Galbuts drove down from the Catskills to Miami Beach in hopes of escaping the lingering effects of the Depression, the city had its struggles. Then, south of Fifth Street was sketchy and rundown. Decades before, Jews and blacks had to carry work permit cards to prove they belonged on South Beach.
“I grew up on Fifth Street. Nobody in their right mind would go there today,” son Russell Galbut said in a 1984 Miami Herald profile on the family.
“But we’re on 10th Street,” Bessie Galbut quickly added. “We’re doing everything we can.”
Certainly, she was. Russell Galbut chuckles at the memory.
Bessie Galbut died at 92 on Feb. 5 in the community she helped grow in the near 70 years she spent in the city after moving to the Beach in 1946 with her late husband, Hyman.
Her late father-in-law, Abraham “Al” Galbut, and his wife, also named Bessie, arrived on the Beach on Thanksgiving Day, 1934. Al would soon own an entire corner of the Fifth Street and Washington Avenue intersection. The Galbuts would open a newsstand, the first auto tag agency on the Beach, a travel agency, a driving school and a law firm. The latter would be led by Hyman Galbut and two of the sons he had with his wife, who was a longtime philanthropist, particularly for Jewish institutions and culture.
“She was a very determined woman who came from New Orleans and lived on Miami Beach for 70 years, and gave of herself to the community and believed in the community,” Russell Galbut said Friday. “She really created a Jewish world on Miami Beach.
“There is not a single Jewish institution she did not touch — whether it’s the Jewish Community Center, named for the Galbut family, or Hebrew Academy. “There’s not one she did not touch in a meaningful and significant way.”
The Gale Hotel at 1690 Collins Ave. features a wall of Galbut photos that traces the family’s contribution to the city. Among them: the work cards issued to Al in the 1930s, Hyman in 1946 and Russell in 1967. “It was a very difficult time,” he remembers. As the matriarch, Bessie worked tirelessly to make things better on the Beach for fellow settlers.
Her passion began at home.
“There’s no question. She was always the first to rise in the morning and make sure the children were ready for school, and she would only go to bed after all the homework was done. She never accepted anything less than excellence,” Russell Galbut said.
The Bessie M. Galbut Daughters of Israel Mikvah Center in Miami Beach is but one institution devoted to the Jewish faith that features the handiwork of its namesake.
“She was really trying to create a Jewish world on Miami Beach. It took my mother to put the emphasis on it and the strength and commitment to develop it to where it is today,” Russell Galbut said.
In addition to her son, Galbut is survived by her children Dr. Robert Galbut, Dr. David Galbut and Abraham Galbut, as well as 25 grandchildren and 51 great-grandchildren. Services will be held at 9 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy, 2400 Pine Tree Dr., Miami Beach. Interment will be in Israel.
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