When Jews throughout South Florida gather this evening to mark the start of Rosh Hashana – the Jewish New Year – it will likely evoke memories of celebrations of years past; of family gatherings, perhaps, in the Northeastern cities many previously called home.
But for West Palm Beach retirees Arthur and Nola Nagler, those memories are rooted in an altogether different place, one in which the soil is so deep, dark and rich that it’s called “black gold” and the heart of the area is a lake so large that it’s more like an ocean unto itself.
In other words, they are Jews of the Glades.
“We went from being tolerated to being accepted to being respected,” says Nagler, former president of Temple Beth Sholom in Belle Glade, a synagogue that in its 44-year run – 1956 to 2000 – served as the focal point for a small, tightly knit community of Jewish families.
Some were connected to farming – specifically, as market-savvy middlemen, trained in the produce business in the northeast, who saw that the vegetables from the Glades made their way to the rest of the United States.
Others ran stores and businesses – a dry-goods shop, a dress emporium, an accounting firm – businesses typically associated with Jewish merchants and professionals.
And still others made their mark in different ways: The Gold and Dobrow families built and ran the movie theaters, including the still-surviving Prince Theatre in downtown Pahokee. Iz Nachman served as the Glades correspondent for the now-defunct Palm Beach Evening Times.
All this fits into the pattern of Jewish life in small Southern towns, says Mark I. Greenberg, a scholar who co-edited Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History (Brandeis University Press, 2006). “You don’t always find Jews where you expect to find them. But they go where they can fill an economic need,” he says.
This migration had little to do with the much larger historical movement of Northeastern Jews coming to the South Florida coastline (think Miami Beach in its early heyday). That was about fun in the sun. The Jews of the Glades – the Lake Okeechobee region an hour’s drive from either coast but in a much different socioeconomic zone – came to earn a living.
Matzos and mitzvahs
Jewish merchants started spreading beyond big cities to find work more than 150 years ago, creating ethnic enclaves in places ranging from the Florida Panhandle to Charleston, S.C. More than 100 cities in 12 Southern states had Jewish mayors at one time or another, notes the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss.
The Glades may have been somewhat late to the trend – most Jewish merchant-class communities date from before World War II – but they are part of it nonetheless.
At its peak, the Glades Jewish community numbered about 30 to 40 families – enough to sustain a synagogue that had a part-time rabbi, a religious school program, and even the occasional bar or bat mitzvah.
(The temple also attracted Jewish residents from neighboring towns, such as Clewiston, for its High Holy Day services.)
Today, the community is all but gone. By most accounts, fewer than 10 Jewish residents remain scattered throughout the Glades.
The temple is gone, too. Well, the building still stands – it was sold to a Hispanic Christian congregation. But all that remains in the truest sense are the memories.
Former Beth Sholom members recall charity balls the temple hosted – one year, in a Palm Beach hotel! – that became the ultimate Glades social events.
And they recall the bar and bat mitzvahs: The non-Jewish invitees often needed permission from their churches to attend.
And they recall explaining the fine art of making traditional Jewish dishes to folks who probably thought a matzo ball came out of a Jewish child’s toy chest.
A Southern way of life
But they also recall, well, just a way of life, rural and Southern-tinged, in which religion played its part but no more so than anything else.
Arthur Nagler, who came from New York as a produce broker, gets a kick out of telling how he once joined in an evening of raccoon hunting.
And Edward Arons, an attorney-turned-dry-goods merchant who still calls Pahokee home, talks of his spouse’s favorite pastime. “She used to go fishing every day,” he says.
Who led the synagogue services? The temple found Jack Stateman, a Jewish mail carrier in West Palm Beach who was trained as a cantor, and tapped him to come out and serve as lay rabbi.
Stateman did, for the synagogue’s entire 44-year run. With his wife, Shirley, he also ran the Sunday religious school.
All in a building not much bigger than your standard suburban home.
“I would teach in the back of the synagogue, somebody would teach in front, and somebody would teach in the kitchen,” says Shirley Stateman, who now lives with her husband in Pembroke Pines.
Worshiping in dungarees
And while services weren’t much different from what you’d find in any synagogue – the temple considered itself Conservative, though it welcomed all Jews – the attire wasn’t always especially formal.
“On Friday nights, a couple of the (Jewish) farmers would come in with their boots and dungarees and cowboy shirts. They didn’t have time to go home and change,” Shirley Stateman recalls.
Jewish farmers? Many of the Jewish produce brokers and other merchants saw it as a logical leap. It was the local industry, after all.
And Jewish life in the Glades was closely tied to the produce business.
Arthur Nagler’s story is typical: He started out as a produce broker in New York but was constantly shuttling back and forth to the Glades for business.
In the late ’50s, a group of Glades farmers suggested he settle in the area and work directly for them as part of a cooperative they were forming.
It seemed a big stretch for a Jewish couple more accustomed to treading concrete streets than dirt roads. Nagler had once promised his wife that “this is one place you’ll never to have to live.” But when the couple did set up house, they found a town willing to assist with everything, from finding a playpen – they eventually raised four girls in Belle Glade – to seeing to it that they were well-fed.
“In the first two weeks, we never ate home,” says Nagler.
But Nagler was something of a latecomer to the Glades. Other Jewish families had been in the area for several years, meeting in each other’s homes for religious services and social events.
Children needed religion
The decision to establish a synagogue came about when they started to raise children.
“It got to the point they needed more religion,” says Nagler.
The Jewish community’s philosophy was a simple one, the former temple president explains: They never denied their faith to anyone, but they never made a point of calling undue attention to it. For example, they would never think of protesting the staging of a Christmas show at a public school. If anything, they contributed, making costumes or baking cookies.
At the same time, they made their presence known in a civic sense: There was hardly an organization in the Glades, from garden clubs to hospital boards, that didn’t have a Jewish member, if not a Jewish leader.
For a while, Belle Glade even had a Jewish mayor, Harold Rabin. (“He was a macher,” says Edward Arons, using the Yiddish term for “big shot.”) And Nagler was president of the local chamber of commerce.
The result, says Nagler, was a region that saw Jews in a different light, judging them by their actions, not by any preconceived notions of their faith and culture.
Prejudice became largely a non-issue, even with the sizable Palestinian community that also established itself, oddly enough, in Belle Glade.
Not that anti-Semitic comments weren’t occasionally overheard. And on at least one occasion, the temple was vandalized, though the synagogue leadership dismissed it as more a youthful prank than a hate incident.
Children left Glades
But Joel Kaufman, a Washington, D.C., attorney who was brought up in a Jewish farming family in Belle Glade, also recalls the time his father pointed out to him the head of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter.
The town was very much divided along color lines, but the message was clear: Jews weren’t automatically guaranteed a place at the table, either. “I wouldn’t paint the totally idyllic picture,” says Kaufman.
But it wasn’t prejudice that prompted the overall collapse of the Jewish community. Rather, it was the withering of the town’s overall middle-class base, a development attributed to the “white flight” that ensued after the integration of the public schools, and the end of small, family-run farms.
Today, the downtowns that Jewish merchants helped build in Belle Glade and Pahokee are shadows of their former selves. Which meant that even if the Jewish children wanted to take over their family businesses, there was nothing left to take over.
As it is, most of these children went on to college and sought careers in law, medicine or other of the professions that have defined Jewish life in the post-merchant class era.
Mark I. Greenberg paraphrases a line by Southern Jewish writer Eli Evans:
“The history of the Jewish South is the history of fathers who built businesses for sons who didn’t want them.”
Down to three families
By the late ’90s, it was obvious that Temple Beth Sholom could no longer survive. The congregation was down to three families.
In 2000, Arthur Nagler, who had already moved with his wife to West Palm Beach, oversaw the selling of the temple.
The synagogue was grateful that the building would retain its place in the community as a house of worship.
But Temple Beth Sholom does live on in a sense: Its Torah remains in the hands of Jack Stateman, who, at 86, still uses it in his lay rabbi role, whether he’s conducting a service at a nursing home or tutoring a bar mitzvah candidate.
Stateman also saw to it that the temple’s prayer books and other religious artifacts were distributed to needy congregations.
As for the temple’s memorial plaque, which honors departed congregants, it has found a home at Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach, where the few remaining members of Temple Beth Sholom now pray.
Nagler felt so welcomed by the West Palm Beach synagogue that he serves on its board. (But he and his wife keep their connections to the Glades: She makes a point of traveling back there weekly for art classes and a salon appointment.)
‘Extremely close temple’
Washington attorney Joel Kaufman looks back knowing he was a minority in the rural towns that made up the Glades.
But, he says, the rich life of the synagogue – “We were an extremely close temple community” – more than compensated.
He ended up marrying a Jewish woman who grew up in Portland, Maine. He ribbed her about that when they met.
And he still does.
“What kind of Jews are there from Portland?”
Published September 12, 2007
By CHARLES PASSY, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The Palm Beach Post, Accent Section, Page 1E
Tags: Glades, Jews
Posted in Archives September 12, 2007 at 11:51 am. Add a comment
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