Photo: FIRST CONGREGATION SONS OF ISRAEL IN ST. AUGUSTINE, RABBI SAMUEL CYWIAK
Converted Jews may have come with Ponce de Leon when he landed in Florida in 1513. One of his leaders, Pedro Menendez Marques, was a "Marrano."
The Jewish community has always been an integral part of St. Augustine and has participated actively in its social, civic and religious life.
Two Jewish peddlers, Gerson Posnansky and Samuel Snyder, were killed by Indians in 1840 and 1846. They were buried in West Augustine in what is now a Jewish cemetery.
Moses Levy (formerly the family was named Yulee) purchased part of the Arredondo grant in the early 1800's. This property was the former site of Fort Mosé (located in the northern city limits), the first free black community in the U.S.
David Levy, son of Moses Levy, studied to be an attorney in St. Augustine, was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1832 and practiced law here. In 1845, he reclaimed the Yulee family name and was elected to the U.S. Senate. Levy also purchased land in the 1840's from a Sephardic Jew, Antonio Fernandez Mier, a name common to Minorcans who are descendants of St. Augustine's earliest settlers.
Levy chaired the Committee on Private Land Claims (Twenty-ninth and Thirtieth Congresses), Committee on Naval Affairs (Thirty-first Congress) and chairman of the Senate Committee on Post Office and Post Roads (Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth Congresses).
In 1861, Levy quit the Senate and supported the Confederacy. Levy was a prisoner at Fort Pulaski in 1865. Levy was known as "Father of Florida's railroads." He was president of the Florida Railroad Company 1853-1866; president of Peninsular Railroad Company, Tropical Florida Railway Company, and Fernandina and Jacksonville Railroad Company.Both the town of Yulee and Levy County are both named for David Levy.
St. Augustine was the only place in Florida where Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested. On June 11, 1964 Dr. King was arrested on the steps of the Monson Motel restaurant. He wrote a letter in the St. Augustine Jail to his old friend, Rabbi Israel Dresner in Springfield, New Jersey.
Dr. King urged the Rabbi to recruit other rabbis willing to be arrested while protesting "Jim Crow" segregation. One week later, historian Taylor Branch reported that the result was the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history on June 18, 1964 at the Monson Motel.