As the world noted Israel's 70th anniversary of statehood in April, I couldn’t help but think of the common threads that connect Israel to our beloved Miami.
Israel and Miami may sit on opposite sides of the world, but they share many commonalities. While cities like New York, Boston and Chicago have stood as beacons of democracy for centuries, Miami, like Israel, is relatively young. In addition, both have become modern-day symbols for refugees seeking asylum and economic opportunity.
And while national data suggests waning support for Israel among American Jews, data locally stands in direct contrast. According to Pew research, nearly 40 percent of American Jews aged 65 or older feel ‘very attached’ to Israel; only 25 percent of Jews ages 18-29 feel the same way.
Here in Miami, the figures bring more promise. According to a Greater Miami Jewish Federation survey, more than 71 percent of respondents have a family member who has visited Israel, and 62 percent report a strong connection to Israel.
Such information reinforces the critical role that Miami, its elected leaders and its robust Jewish community can play in ensuring Israel’s continued security and survival.
As proud partners with the Birthright Israel Foundation since its inception almost 20 years ago, Miami has sponsored more than 8,000 young adults, aged 18 to 32, for travel to Israel. In the free, 10-day trip, they learn more about their Jewish heritage and immerse themselves in cultural and educational events. In its inaugural year, 185 students from Florida traveled to Israel; Norman Braman and I personally sponsored 60 of these students, all from the University of Florida, because enabling our youth to gain a more fundamental appreciation for Israel and a stronger Jewish identity ensures a more secure and prosperous future for all.
Data shows the program is working. The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University has found that Birthright participants, even 10 years after their experiences in Israel through the program, are more likely than other Jews in their age group to feel a strong connection to Israel, marry a Jewish spouse and raise children engaged in Jewish life.
Florida, overall, remains one of the top U.S. states doing business with Israel. As the Miami Herald reported in February, nearly $290 million of Florida’s worldwide trade was with Israel. Miami-based entrepreneurs and technology-sector leaders continue to work with their counterparts in the Jewish state to increase collaboration and kickstart innovative partnerships. And, in 2017, it was announced that direct flights between Miami and Tel Aviv would resume for the first time since 2008.
Miami’s embrace of Israeli culture is evident across a wide variety of sectors, including the historic Sagamore Hotel's commemoration of Israel’s 70th anniversary with an art show and installation, and the annual Miami Jewish Film Festival, which remains the largest Jewish cultural event in the state and one of the largest festivals in the world to showcase Jewish cinema and its contributions.
As Israel commemorates 70 years of statehood, it is a time for celebration, but also a time to remain steadfast and vocal in our support of its right to exist. Doing so is more than a matter of preserving the vibrant heritage that so many Jewish residents enjoy in Miami. It is an imperative for the continued protection of democracy across the globe.
Gary Gerson is a Miami Leadership Council Member of the Birthright Israel Foundation and founding partner of Gerson Preston, a South Florida-based independent accounting firm.