St. Johns County celebrated on Nov. 8 the long-standing alliance between the United States and Israel — and the Jewish community’s even longer history in St. Augustine — with County Commission Chairman Jeremiah R. Blocker and County Clerk and Comptroller Brandon Patty signing a St. Johns County-Israel Friendship Day proclamation before a crowd of more than 60 residents and supporters.
"By declaring Nov. 8 St. Johns County-Israel Friendship Day, we are saying that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Israel and our Jewish friends and neighbors in St. Johns County in promoting freedom, human rights and security," Clerk Patty said.
The celebration came after the recent adoption of a county resolution to revise its investment policy to remove companies on Florida’s List of Scrutinized Companies that Boycott Israel, including Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and its parent company, Unilever.
Prompting the investment change was Ben and Jerry’s announcement earlier this year that it would remove its products and prohibit the sale of its ice cream in 2022 in the Jewish settlements of Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank and Gaza, which are home to some of Israel’s holiest sites.
Gov. Ron DeSantis sent a letter in late July to the executive director and chief investment officer of the Florida State Board of Administration (SBA) requesting the SBA initiate the process of placing Ben and Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, on Florida’s List of Scrutinized Companies that Boycott Israel. Effective Oct. 26, the state is restricting purchases of Unilever assets.
As accountant and custodian of St. Johns County’s funds, responsible for managing the investments of county dollars, Clerk Patty saw that the county’s investment policy for surplus funds had not been updated since 2017 and did not reference the Boycott, Divesture and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel. He proposed the policy change to the Board of County Commissioners, calling for the Comptroller’s Office to annually review companies deemed as prohibited investments. The Commission approved it by resolution on Nov. 2.
"St. Johns County residents’ tax dollars should not be invested in companies that adopt policies counter to our American values," Clerk Patty said. "Here in St. Johns County, we are sending a clear message to companies that our taxpayer dollars will not support discriminatory policies counter to our American values."
Through this investment policy change, the county will no longer purchase investments from companies on the state’s list, in addition to companies with ties to Sudan and Iran and those on the federal Specially Designated Nationals List.
On Nov. 10, the asset manager for St. Johns County divested more than $370,000 in Unilever assets. Clerk Patty said those dollars will be invested instead in other companies with similar or better rates of return.
At the Friendship Day event, the Commission’s recent approval of the resolution received cheers from the dozens of St. Johns County residents and organizations in attendance.
Featured speakers were Rabbi Mendel Sharfstein of Chabad St. Johns County, who offered the invocation; the Rev. Lee Weaver of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society, who presented a history of the Jewish community and the story of the 16 rabbis arrested in a civil rights protest organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964; Ms. Mariam Shpeen Feist, CEO of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Northeast Florida; and Ms. Mary Schulten, Christian outreach coordinator for StandWithUs.
"It was my privilege to accept this beautiful proclamation on behalf of all of St Johns County’s Jews," said Sharfstein, who represented the Jewish community at the recent Commission meeting. "What we all have in common here in St Johns County is our mutual respect for each other. This proclamation demonstrates the genuine friendship the people of this county have towards the Jewish community, both here and abroad, and it is deeply appreciated by all of us."
Sharfstein, who co-directs the Chabad Center for Jewish Life of St. Johns with his wife Dini, thanked county representatives for their beautiful display of support and friendship toward the County’s Jewish community and towards the State of Israel.
A surprise highlight of the event was Ms. Feist’s reading of a letter from the Israeli Consulate of Miami in support of the St. Johns County-Israel Friendship Day proclamation and the investment policy resolution.
"We are appreciative to St. Johns County for proclaiming Nov. 8 as Israel Friendship Day," said Ms. Feist. "As the convening organization on behalf of the Jewish community, we thank you for your unwavering support of Israel, and look forward to more opportunities to connect with, forge deeper relationships and work together with the St. Johns County community. For without a vibrant and strong St. Johns County, we can't have a vibrant and strong Jewish community."
U.S. Army veteran Capt. Brandon Sugg of St. Johns County led the pledge of allegiance, and Rabbi Fred Raskind, adjunct rabbi, Congregation Ahavath Chesed, closed the ceremony with a blessing.
At the close of the celebration, Rabbi Sharfstein and his fellow Chabad Rabbis Levi Vogel and Nochum Kurinsky, presented Clerk Patty with a Menorah as a sign of light, unity and friendship, which he accepted on behalf of the county.
St. Johns County-Israel Friendship Day celebrated on November 8, 2021.