Zionist origins of Seminole County


May is Jewish American Heritage Month in the United States, and the Museum of Seminole County History is proud to display the great impact of Jewish contributions to Seminole County History in a special exhibit located in its front parlor. This display, running through May 28, features Moses Levy and several other influential families and their lives in Seminole County.

As the western hemisphere neared the second decade of the 19th century, Caribbean Spaniards grew more and more certain that the Spanish Crown would cede its colony of Florida to the fledgling United States. Spaniards rushed to acquire grants and purchase land before the change, knowing they could reap huge profits selling it to American settlers after it became a U.S. Territory.

Moses Elias Levy had become very wealthy as a timber trader throughout the Caribbean, and he invested much of his wealth in this new land rush. He grew up a Sephardic Jew in Morocco, and fled to Gibraltar with his father in 1790 upon the ascension of a particularly anti-Semitic Sultan. From there he carried his faith westward as he sought greater opportunities in the New World. Now that he had achieved his fortune, he sought to invest it not just in the high rewards of land speculation, but in the American promise of religious freedom.

Moses believed that he could build a utopian community in this new territory, one where the next generation of Jews like himself could find refuge from a new nexus of Jewish persecution, post-Napoleonic Europe.

For the site of this community he chose a lakeshore along the St. Johns River as far south as ships could travel reliably from the main supply port of St. Augustine: Lake Monroe in what is now Seminole County. He envisioned it as a place of pilgrimage for Jews the world over, a site they could call home.

Bad crop years put an end to Levy’s plan for his community on the lake. Either the soil was too poor, or the weather too harsh. He moved his plantation in 1822 to another grant he owned on the fertile “Alachua Savannah” near Micanopy, on the shore of another lake which now bears his name: Levy. He brought 26 known Jewish refugees from Europe to grow sugarcane there, and supplemented their labor with slaves. They built a school, synagogue, mills and houses, and functioned as an autonomous and growing community until the onset of the Second Seminole War in 1835, when a December raiding party burned the plantation to the ground.

After 13 years Moses Levy’s dream of a homeland for persecuted Jews ended, and the inhabitants scattered to parts unknown. But the dream was here first, in Central Florida. Moses Levy sold his first plantation site—his grant on Lake Monroe—to an Irishman named Joseph Finegan, a man who would later command the Confederate forces in Florida. Finegan in turn sold it to businessman Henry Sanford in 1868, and Sanford built there a city, which today is the seat of Seminole County. Sanford Florida sprawls across a landscape, which once symbolized the hope of Jewish autonomy and free practice of religion.

The Museum is located at 300 Bush Boulevard in Sanford, just off of U.S. 17/92. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children, plus tax. The Museum of Seminole County History would like to extend special acknowledgements to Alicia Clarke and the Sanford Museum, Christine Kinlaw-Best, Heritage Florida Jewish News, and the Holocaust Memorial Research and Education Center for their contributions to this exhibit.


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