Taking a Jewish staycation in St. Augustine this summer
BY MERRILL SHAPIRO
Jewish Historical Society of St. Augustine
There are plenty of historically Jewish sites in the oldest established city in America, just a short drive or day trip from Jacksonville and surrounding communities in Northeast Florida. Start your staycation at Mission Nombre de Dios on Route A1A, where these Jews, Marranos, were in hiding. The base of the cross says that the first Europeans came here September 8, 1565 but add 10 days to convert to the Gregorian calendar and learn they landed on the day after Yom Kippur. No one knows why this site was named Nombre de Dios, but to your south is a map of Florida’s 66 Spanish Missions. They’re named for Saints or Indian tribes, except Nombre de Dios because the theory is that the name recalls Yom Kippur when the High Priest pronounced the Nombre de Dios.
Then head South, through the Old City Gate and you’ll find the oldest surviving wooden schoolhouse in North Americam where a Jewish man, Moses Elias Levy sat on the St. Johns County School Board in the 1820s and brought free public education to the state of Florida. Two blocks west is the old Minorcan Cemetery, where the graves are of those brought to New Smyrna Beach in 1777 from the Balearic Islands . The colony failed so they walked 70 miles to St. Augustine and many Islanders were descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity.
Next you'll want to go back toward St. George Street and walk south to the Sanchez House on your left. In the 1820s, Moses Elias Levy bought the Sanchez House and purchased land to create a Jewish Utopian State in Florida. Levy devoted himself to writing and speaking about the Abolition of Slavery. As you go more in a southerly direction to Hypolito Street, turn left toward the waterfront. At the corner is a small statue of Queen Isabella, who, with her husband King Ferdinand, signed the Alhambra Decree expelling half-a-million Jews from Spain, on August 1, 1492, which ironically enough was also the day that Christopher Columbus set sail.
Following that stop, turn right at Avenida Mendendez to the Hilton Garden Inn. Enter the parking lot, turn left and then left again and notice the plaque in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was King who called for help from the Reform Rabbinate and it was here that 16 Rabbis were arrested for integrating the lunch counter and served as the largest mass arrest of Rabbis in U.S. History. Running south from the Plaza in the center of town is Artillery Lane is the Segui-Kirby Home. Segui is Minorcan thought to be related to the name Siegel. It was here that Moses Levy’s son, David Levy Yulee studied for the Florida Bar with future governor Robert Reid. Yulee, was the first person of Jewish descent to serve in the United States Senate.
Now, head west on Artillery Street and Palm Row to Cordova St. Notice on your right the old Ponce de Leon Hotel, which is now Flagler College. Built by Henry Flagler toward the end of the 19th century, it is important to note that at the time no Jew was permitted to stay there. At 161 Cordova is First Congregation Sons of Israel, which is Florida’s oldest synagogue that is in continuous use. The synagogue dates back to 1921, and the congregation to the 1890s.
West on King Street, past Flagler College and Markland, where Moses Elias Levy stayed, you will find Florida’s oldest Jewish Cemetery. Here is the unmarked grave of Gerson Posnansky, an itinerant Jewish peddler who was killed by Native Americans in 1840s. South of town on the waterfront is the National Cemetery, where there are six Jewish burials including Corporal Leon Breslaw. Breslaw was killed when two B-17s collided near Tampa. Also here is Lieutenant George Friedlander, who in April 1917, asked John Philip Sousa to compose a march for the Artillery Corps. Sousa went home and composed 'The Caissons Go Rolling Along'.