Hadassah / February 2007
By Larry Luxner
It's official: Palm Beach County is now the most Jewish jurisdiction in the world outside Israel.
The county has an estimated 255,000 Jews living within its 1,974 square miles, equivalent to 20% of the county's 1.27 million inhabitants. That's a much higher concentration than even the New York metropolitan area.
Jews are still a rarity in Belle Glade, South Bay and the vast sugarcane farms along Lake Okeechobee and scattered throughout western Palm Beach County. But throughout the county's more densely populated eastern half, synagogues, bagel shops, kosher pizza joints, museums, Jewish educational institutions and even Yiddish clubs now seem almost as numerous as the palm trees.
In fact, Palm Beach County has no less than 50 synagogues from Boca Raton in the south to Jupiter in the north. These include Reform, Conservative and Orthodox shuls as well as a dozen or so Chabad congregations.
That means there's plenty to see for a Jewish traveler to Florida's largest county in size and third-largest in population.
The county's first Jews arrived in 1900, four years after resort builder Henry Flagler extended his railroad tracks to Miami. These Jewish merchants thrived on Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach, which was created to house workers serving luxurious Palm Beach, across the Intracoastal Waterway.
At that time, Jews were still an exotic and unwelcome minority in Palm Beach, where Flagler attached restrictive covenants to his land sales to keep Jews away. But that didn't stop them from settling elsewhere throughout the sparsely populated county.
In 1924, six Jewish families dedicated Temple Beth Israel, a small, domed white structure that still sits at its original location in West Palm Beach, just a few blocks inland from the Intracoastal. In 1930, Dr. Carl N. Herman became the Reform temple's first full-time rabbi.
As World War II approached, the congregation welcomed Jewish soldiers, offering them a home away from home. In 1948, Rabbi Richard E. Singer became Beth Israel's new spiritual leader, and with postwar growth, that original building quickly became too small. The congregation changed its name to Temple Israel and moved to its current location along North Flagler Drive.
In the 1960s and '70s, modern drainage control opened up large areas of Palm Beach County to development, and air-conditioning lured more and more visitors from up north, convincing many of them to stay year-round. That's when the Jewish influx really began fueled by middle-class New Yorkers in their early 60s coming down to Florida to live out their golden years.
More recently, the county has begun attracting large numbers of young families and today, there are enough Jews in Palm Beach County to support not one but two thriving federations and five JCCs. Yet old attitudes die hard; only seven years ago, the State of Florida threatened legal action to force Boca Raton's Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club to open its doors to Jews and other minorities.
The Breakers Palm Beach's premier oceanfront resort that once turned away Jews now hosts Hadassah fund-raisers and annual Anti-Defamation League conventions. Flagler would probably be moaning in his grave if he knew that since 1998, bearded Hasidic Jews stage an enormous menorah-lighting ceremony every Chanukah at the intersection of Bradley Drive and Royal Poinciana Way.
About 77% of the county's Jewish population lives in Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach and the western unincorporated areas of these three cities, according to a comprehensive study done last year by University of Miami demographer Ira Sheskin.
In fact, Boynton Beach once a sleepy and very goyische town located halfway between Boca and West Palm has suddenly emerged as ground zero of the Jewish population explosion rocking Palm Beach County.
Since 1999, the quiet suburb of 52,000 has seen its Jewish population jump by 63%, while nearby Lake Worth has experienced a 12% increase, and Jewish households in the county's northern suburbs such as Palm Beach Gardens, North Palm Beach and Jupiter have grown by 45%. Every day it seems a new synagogue or JCC is breaking ground, in places that never saw Jews before, like Greenacres (Temple Beth Tikvah) and Royal Palm Beach (Temple Beth Zion).
According to the Sheskin study, 42% of South Florida's 603,000 Jews now live in Palm Beach County, compared to 40% in Broward and only 18% in Miami-Dade County.
Among other things, Sheskin found that Jews comprise 78% of the county's 230,000 seniors. Not surprisingly, the county's Jewish population continues to be the oldest in the nation. Its median age of 70 compares to a national Jewish median age of 39.
One-quarter of all Palm Beach County households are now Jewish, a ratio that rises to an astounding 49% for the county's southern half, which includes Boca Raton, Boynton Beach and Delray Beach.
"Boca has the image of being almost entirely Jewish and we have Seinfeld to thank for that," quips Boca Raton's Jewish mayor, Steve Abrams. It's true: Jerry Seinfeld's fictional TV parents, Morty and Helen Seinfeld, live in a sprawling retirement community called Del Boca Vista.
Abrams says the eastern part of his city, east of I-95, is maybe 20% Jewish, but that the western part, which comprises about 200,000 people living in unincorporated Palm Beach County but using a Boca Raton postal address, is nearly 80% Jewish.
In fact, Boca's Temple Beth El, with 1,500 member families, is the largest Reform synagogue in the southeastern United States.
Retirement havens like the ones where the Seinfelds live have popped up all over the county. Delray Beach is home to Kings Point, a controlled-access community where 95% of the 14,000 residents are believed to be Jewish. The same is largely true of Century Village, founded by developer H. Irwin Levy in the 1960s. There are now three Century Villages in Palm Beach County one each in West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton two of them with their own synagogues.
Because the community is so new and their average age so high, only 1% of Palm Beach County's Jews were born there. Interestingly, just 13% of the county's Jews have married outside the faith the lowest intermarriage rate in America.
Visitors hoping to put local Jewish history in perspective should at least drive by the remains of Temple Beth Israel, where Jewish life in Palm Beach County had its humble beginnings. The little white shul, located on Broward Avenue in a residential neighborhood right off Flagler Drive, is currently fenced off and not accessible to the public.
That'll change soon, however. A developer plans to build high-rise condos on that same land, which has led to an innovative $1.3 million project spearheaded by a group called Towards a More Perfect Union. TMPU with input from the Jewish, Greek Orthodox and African-American communities will dismantle the synagogue and float it on a barge up the Intracoastal Waterway to Martin County, where it will sit in a warehouse for two years until a new site can be readied.
At that point, the temple will be floated back down south and reconstructed in the shadow of a new office building at Quadrille and Hibiscus avenues in downtown West Palm Beach. The idea is to turn it into a cultural center honoring religious tolerance.
According to the project's promoters, "ongoing arts and cultural exhibits, conferences, speakers, films, receptions, programs for adults and children, traveling exhibits, and special events will highlight the many faces of the county's past, present, and future." For more information, call TMPU at (561) 659-4924, or visit www.tmpu.org.
Temple Israel which traces its roots to the original 1924 congregation is a well-known Jewish landmark facing the Intracoastal (1901 N. Flagler Drive; phone (561) 833-8421). A simple complex arranged around a courtyard, the structure was built in the 1950s and completely renovated 18 years ago. The sanctuary has a glass-encased ark whose door features a menorah tree-branch pattern, through which no less than a dozen Torahs are visible, including three mini-Torahs for children.
Temple Israel was badly damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005; the office of Rabbi Howard Shapiro got flooded and is still in disarray. Shapiro said the present building will be totally demolished, with a new building to rise on the site.
Nine blocks to the north is Temple Beth El, a Conservative synagogue whose asphalt-shingled dome is barely visible from the street (2815 N. Flagler Drive; phone (561) 833-0339). This is where Lois Frankel, the mayor of West Palm Beach, comes to pray. Two rabbis officiate here: David Westman, a Democrat, and Leonid Feldman, a Republican.
Beth El's laminated acacia ceiling is in the shape of an ascending spiral that simulates the folds of a tent and culminates in a "great window" that floods the bimah with light. The pews, which seat 900, are upholstered in bright orange and all face the bimah at a 45-degree angle.
The focal point for Jewish life in northern Palm Beach County is the Harold & Sylvia Kaplan JCC of Greater Palm Beach, located at 3151 N. Military Trail, West Palm Beach; phone (561) 689-7700. It's located in the same campus as the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County (4601 Community Drive; phone (561) 478-0700).
Monthly Shabbat dinners for seniors, adult fitness programs and a parenting center are all staples of the JCC's offerings. So is B'Tayavon, a bistro and bakery run by Marla Weinman and the only rabbinically supervised kosher restaurant in the Palm Beaches (phone: (561) 712-5238).
Two interesting touches: at the gym, above the exercise machines, quotes from the Talmud are displayed prominently, including "One who exerts oneself succeeds" and "Fortify yourself, build up your strength."
Nearby in the JCC's lobby is an eye-catching glass tower containing one million pennies worth $10,000. The idea is to fill five more columns with a million pennies each, then donate the $60,000 to Yad Vashem and local Holocaust survivors' groups. (An estimated 4,800 Holocaust survivors live in Palm Beach County, the third-highest in the nation after Broward County and Los Angeles).
In fact, so many Jews live up here that the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County has had to open two satellite branches: the Henry & Ida Hochman JCC in Boynton Beach, and a separate storefront location in the western suburb of Wellington; there's also talk of a third branch going up soon in ritzy Palm Beach Gardens, which the New York Times recently anointed as the latest "it" destination for affluent golfing and tennis enthusiasts.
Temple Judea is located in Palm Beach Gardens, half an hour's drive north of West Palm Beach (4311 Hood Road; phone (561) 686-7986). It is arguably the county's newest and fanciest synagogue and well worth a visit.
Borrowing from Greek, Spanish and European styles, the synagogue boasts a grandiose entrance and a dozen imposing columns, each inscribed with the Hebrew name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Entering the shul, worshippers pass between two ceramic mosaics, one entitled "mishpat" (justice), the other 'tzedaka" (charity).
"We wanted a synagogue that would evoke memories of the past, bringing in both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi heritage," said Rabbi Joel Levine, who's been with the congregation for 26 years. "But here in Palm Beach County, there was nothing for the Sephardim. Most American synagogues have only an Ashkenazi influence."
Even the restrooms here are lavish, with original framed art decorating both the men's and women's bathrooms.
Levine, who says Temple Judea was completed last year at a bargain cost of $4 million the builders snatched up tiles at local flea markets to save money also claims his is the only shul in the world with a healing tower. He brings sick people and their families under this tower for special prayers.
Two blocks north of The Breakers is the Palm Beach Orthodox Synagogue, a beautiful building that looks old but isn't (120 N. County Road; phone (561) 838-9002). Its prominent Star of David seems to mock those early developers like Flagler who sought to exclude Jews from the city at all costs.
And just up the street is Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative congregation (190 N. County Road; phone (561) 832-0804). The stone building features four graceful Mediterranean arches and an entrance reached from street level by two curving stairways. The sanctuary has arched stained-glass windows, an open bimah and an ark door in the same shape as the windows.
At the south end of the county is Boca Raton, home to the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County (9901 Donna Klein Blvd.; phone (561) 852-3100). The federation, which is completely separate from its counterpart in West Palm Beach, operates one JCC right on-premise and the other in nearby Delray Beach.
Boca Raton and its unincorporated suburbs boast no less than 18 synagogues, half of them Orthodox. These include three Chabad congregations, the Boca Raton Synagogue (7900 Montoya Circle; phone (561) 394-5732) and The Shul by the Grove (21065 Unit #A3; phone (561) 394-3904).
At the other end of the religious spectrum is Temple Beth El of Boca Raton. With 1,500 member families, Beth El is the largest Reform congregation in the southeastern United States (333 SW 4th Ave.; phone (561) 391-8900). There's also a Reconstructionist shul, Congregation Kol Ami, led by Rabbi Zev Wellins (phone: (561) 392-0696) as well as a humanistic synagogue, Congregation Beth Adam (phone: (561) 443-1769).
Boca's large and hungry Jewish population has spawned more than half a dozen kosher restaurants, the most famous of which is Boca Tov (21065 Powerline Road; phone (561) 470-3332),. This dairy café and sushi bar stays open every night until 11 p.m., and Saturday nights until 2 a.m., and often features live Jewish entertainment.
There's also Eilat International Café (6853 SW 18th St.; phone (561) 368-6880); JCC Café (9801 Donna Klein Blvd.; phone (561) 852-4103) and Jon's Place of Boca (22191 Powerline Road; phone (561) 338-0008).
Kosher restaurants in the Boca area that serve meat include Jerusalem Cuisine (19635 US 441; phone (561) 470-1120); Boca Pita Express (7185 N. Beracasa Way; phone (561) 750-0088); Falafel Armon (22767 US 441; phone (561) 477-0633) and Orchid's Garden (9045 La Fontana Blvd.; phone (561) 482-3831).
The Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in downtown West Palm Beach is the area's premier concert theatre (701 Okeechobee Blvd.; phone (561) 832-7469). The 11-acre complex welcomes 500,000 visitors a year and offers 900 events annually, including Woody Allen, Mandy Patinkin and other well-known Jewish entertainers.
The Kravis Center also includes the Eunice and Julian Cohen Pavilion, which houses a public restaurant, a meeting/banquet facility, and a five-level parking garage.
The Boca Raton Museum of Art (501 Plaza Real; phone (561) 392-2500) has over 4,000 works in its permanent collection, while the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach (1452 S. Olive Ave.; phone (561) 832-5197) has even more works, housed in an art deco/neo-classical building that dates from 1941.
If it's movies you're after, the JCC sponsors the annual Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival every December. The most recent festival featured 33 films from nine countries including Israel's "King of Beggars," a swashbuckler that combines Samurai sword-fighting with Kabbalah-inspired martial arts; "Zorro's Bar Mitzvah," an ironic look at this rite of passage in today's Austria and Germany, and "18-J," a documentary about the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In addition, Palm Beach Community College (3000 St. Lucie Ave.; phone (561) 862-4725) offers Judaica courses, while Florida Atlantic University, also in Boca Raton (777 Glades Road; phone (561) 297-3787), boasts the recently inaugurated Jewish Life Center, Hillel's new home at FAU.
Palm Beach County has more than its share of Jewish politicians.
For starters, the mayors of three of the county's biggest cities are all Jews: Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach (population 108,000); Jeff Perlman of Delray Beach (population 64,000) and Steven Abrams of Boca Raton (population 85,000).
Abrams, a Republican, is the first and the only Jewish president of the Palm Beach County Municipal League. In 2002, Israel's National Police awarded him a medal for leadership during an anthrax attack the year before.
In addition, Boca is home to two of Florida's three Jewish members of Congress: Robert Wexler and Ron Klein both Democrats.
Wexler, who represents Florida's 19th District in the House of Representatives, is a stauch supporter of Israel and serves on both the Judiciary and International Relations comittees. Klein, a close friend of Wexler, represents Florida's 22nd District. Elected last November in one of the country's most expensive and closely watched campaigns, Klein is an attorney and former Democratic leader of the Florida Senate.