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Palm Beach County: More Jewish than New York

When Bill Gralnick arrived in Miami in the early ’80s, he considered Palm Beach County a no-man’s land for Jews.

“You couldn’t even get a decent bagel in this county,” Gralnick says.

Today, Gralnick, the Southeast regional director of the American Jewish Committee, sees a vastly different landscape. He points to the “multiple synagogues” in such cities as Boynton Beach and Boca Raton, where he established his main office in 1990. To a range of Jewish organizations that provide “cradle-to-grave services.” And to nearly a half-dozen Jewish schools in Boca and West Palm Beach.

But the most startling evidence of Palm Beach County’s transformation into one of the world’s leading centers of Jewish life will come next month, when the county’s two Jewish federations – one based in Boca, the other in West Palm – reveal the results of a population study.

It’s expected to show that there are 254,300 Jews in the county, representing more than 20 percent of the overall population of about 1.2 million.

That means one out of every five local residents is Jewish.

And that means Palm Beach County tops every metropolitan area in the country by a wide margin. Even the closest rival, metropolitan New York City, has a Jewish population that represents only 9.7 percent of the overall population.

“To find a more densely populated Jewish community, you’d have to go to Israel,” says Richard Jacobs, vice president of community planning for the Boca-based Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County.

The figures, of course, can be read in other ways. In terms of the sheer number of Jewish residents, Palm Beach County still trails well behind New York (with 2 million Jews) and Los Angeles (668,000).

But the population density speaks to the fact that the county has developed a distinctly Jewish character – from food to philanthropy. And it’s a trend that has wide-ranging implications for Jews and non-Jews alike.

For Jews, it means more opportunities than ever before to express their faith or partake of their culture – the latter being just as important since Judaism is defined as both an ethnicity and a religion.

Temples, Jewish life teeming

In Palm Beach County, there are now 50 synagogues, with new ones being established and older ones expanding each year. Boca Raton, considered the county’s Jewish hub, has 16 temples, representing all the major branches of the faith – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

And the boom extends to northern Palm Beach County. A telling example: When Temple Beth David, a Conservative synagogue in Palm Beach Gardens, underwent a change in rabbis this past year, several members decided to form a new congregation, Shir Hadash, with the departing rabbi, sensing there was enough demand for both groups.

There’s also the growing presence of Chabad, an Orthodox movement that welcomes Jews at various centers throughout the county. In Wellington alone, the Chabad group has grown from three families to more than 100 in five years.

Indeed, some temples are finding they can barely meet the needs of the thriving Jewish communities they serve. In Boynton Beach, Temple Torah, a Conservative congregation, just started a religious school that attracted more than 100 students in no time.

As for enrollment at the center’s already established preschool? “We have 37 on the waiting list,” Rabbi Geoffrey Botnick says.

But Palm Beach County’s surging Jewish presence reveals itself in ways beyond synagogue life.

Jewish day schools also are experiencing record attendance. Enrollment at suburban West Palm Beach’s Arthur I. Meyer Jewish Academy, for example, jumped to an all-time high of 406 this year. And at Florida Atlantic University’s Boca campus, a once-fledgling Judaic studies program has become a teeming center of Jewish learning, offering undergraduate degrees in the field. The university also has a library of more than 80,000 books.

Other telling signs? Consider the ever-popular Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival, which typically draws 8,000 attendees (or just a few thousand fewer than the more heavily hyped Palm Beach International Film Festival). Or the increased attention paid locally each year to Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Or the numerous social groups for Jewish youth.

And though the Palm Beach County School District does not officially recognize religious holidays, it has a long-standing policy of closing on important dates on the Jewish calendar – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Compare that to other school districts in Florida, from Escambia County in the Panhandle to Indian River County on the Treasure Coast, that remain open on those days. Or even to school districts in heavily Jewish cities nationwide – Baltimore, Chicago – that similarly ignore the Jewish holidays.

And not only is it no longer difficult to find a bagel in Palm Beach County, it’s also increasingly easier to find kosher foods. There are more than a dozen restaurants, bakeries and markets in the county that specialize in kosher offerings. In Boca, the gourmet-oriented Eilat Cafe, which even serves kosher sushi, is so busy that waits for a table during season easily can extend beyond two hours.

Of course, non-Jews are just as likely to partake in a corned-beef sandwich or a bagel with a “schmear” these days.

But that’s only one way an expanded Jewish community has changed the face of the county, especially given Judaism’s traditionally strong emphasis on culture, philanthropy and liberal politics.

Decisive impact on society

Local arts leaders say that without a Jewish presence, the county’s cultural scene would be a shadow of its impressive self. At the fore of nearly every major cultural organization, from the Kravis Center to the Palm Beach Opera to the Boca Raton Museum of Art, is a Jewish base of customers and contributors.

“They are the lifeblood of all the arts, pure and simple,” says cultural philanthropist and former Palm Beach Opera chairman Bob Montgomery. (A non-Jew who spends most of his time in Jewish circles, Montgomery jokes that he’s “got two or three Gentile friends.”)

And in the political arena, there’s little question of the Jewish impact. Some of Palm Beach County’s most prominent elected officials are Jewish, including U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Delray Beach), County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, State Attorney Barry Krischer and West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel. In Palm Beach Gardens, three of the five members of the city council – Jody Barnett, Eric Jablin and David Levy – are Jewish.

More often than not, these politicians bring with them that left-leaning Jewish sensibility. And though there are notable exceptions – Boca Raton Mayor Steve Abrams is a leading Jewish Republican – it’s obvious that the county’s liberalism and Jewish influence go hand in hand. Remember the images of Jewish retirees rallying for the Democrats during the 2000 presidential election?

It wasn’t always this way.

Palm Beach County’s Jewish history dates back to West Palm Beach’s pioneer days – Jewish merchants thrived on Clematis Street in 1900. Still, in 1923, when the county’s first synagogue, Temple Israel, was established, only 200 of West Palm Beach’s 10,000 residents were Jewish.

Across the Intracoastal, the island of Palm Beach became famous as a WASP bastion – and became famously cool to Jews.

“When I came down, you couldn’t go (to certain places) if your name was Cohen or anything that sounded Semitic,” says Sydelle Meyer, a major Palm Beach Jewish philanthropist – her husband is the one behind the Meyer Academy – who moved to the area 32 years ago.

Palm Beach’s Jewish families established their own social center, the Palm Beach Country Club, in 1954, after being denied entry to other country clubs.

The first major influx of Jews came in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when thousands of middle-income Jewish retirees from the Northeast began flocking to sunny Florida, encouraged by developers such as H. Irwin Levy, who founded Century Village in suburban West Palm Beach, still a largely Jewish enclave.

The next shift took place in the early ’80s, when the Miami area, South Florida’s oldest Jewish center, began to take on a decidedly more Latin and urban flavor. Jews moved north to Palm Beach County.

The county, in turn, welcomed them – with safely ensconced gated communities that, until the recent housing boom, were relatively affordable.

At some point, there was a mass of Jews large enough to send the message that many more were welcome. The Jewish population snowballed.

“Jews will go where they think there are other Jews,” says Andrea Greenbaum, an assistant professor of English at Miami’s Barry University who edited the recent book, Jews of South Florida.

County’s widespread appeal

Soon, Jewish professionals – doctors, lawyers, financial planners – moved south to serve the Jewish retirees. And younger Jews moved to the county to be close to their retired parents.

The result: The local Jewish population has gotten slightly less geriatric. In the West Palm-based federation’s service area (from Boynton to Tequesta), the median age has dropped from 70 to 68, according to the new study. (Such figures have not been officially released but were cited in a recent federation publication.)

Although Palm Beach County is becoming more and more Jewish, it is not necessarily becoming a place where Jews spend more time inside the temple.

If Jews can assert their heritage by going to a show at the Kravis featuring a Jewish comedian or by enjoying a bowl of matzo-ball soup at their local deli, they may not feel the need to join a synagogue, local Jewish leaders say. Add to that the challenges the religion has faced in recent decades from interfaith marriages.

That perhaps explains why the county’s affiliation rate – the percentage of Jews who belong to a local temple – is a paltry 18 percent.

“We have a lower rate than one would expect,” says Bill Bernstein, president of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County.

Yet the frenetic growth of the Jewish population means the county is a place where newcomers, observant or not, can readily establish themselves. Rather than being deeply entrenched, the county’s Jewish community is very much about the here and now.

This appeal helped lure Jonathan Marriott, an Orthodox Jew from London, to Boca Raton.

Marriott, his wife and two children moved to Boca a year-and-a-half ago, and in that short time, he has landed on the board of his temple – the Boca Raton Synagogue – and his wife has become PTA president of the Jewish school their children attend.

“You try and do that somewhere else, it would take generations,” he says.

How Palm Beach County’s Jewish population has grown

Palm Beach County 1987 1995 1999 2004

Total population 789,533 962,802 1,042,196 1,242,270

Jewish population 72,000 116,000 166,300 254,300

Percent of population

that is Jewish 9.1% 12.0% 16.0% 20.5%

Jewish life in Palm Beach County

Number of Jewish residents: 254,300

Number of synagogues/congregations: 50

Number of kosher restaurants/bakeries/markets: 12-plus

Number of Jewish schools with partial or full K-12 programs: 5

Number of Jewish community centers: 3

Number of Jewish federations: 2

Sources: Jewish Community Studies, Jewish Federations of Palm Beach County and South Palm Beach County, 1987, 1995 and 1999; University of Florida Estimates of Population; The Florida Jewish Directory; various Web resources.

Published October 23, 2005
By CHARLES PASSY, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The Palm Beach Post, page 1A

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Posted in Archives October 23, 2005 at 9:31 am.

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