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Once Sleepy Florida Suburb Center of Jewish Population Boom

Boynton Beach, once a sleepy and Christian town halfway between Boca Raton and West Palm Beach, has emerged as “ground zero” of a Jewish population explosion in South Florida. Since 1999, the quiet suburb of 52,000 has seen its Jewish population jump by 63 percent, while nearby Lake Worth has experienced a 12 percent increase and Jewish households in the county’s northern suburbs — such as Palm Beach Gardens, North Palm Beach and Jupiter — have grown by 45 percent.

Those are among the results of a study, released Wednesday by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, which covers the northern half of the county, and the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, which serves Boca Raton and Delray Beach.

“Twenty-five years ago, I don’t think there were even any Jews in Boynton Beach, let alone young Jewish families,” said Judy Kuritz, early childhood director at the Boynton Beach Jewish Community Center, located on the edge of the Everglades.

“When I came here five and a half years ago, we had seven classrooms but they were building an additional six. We now have 211 pre-schoolers, and more on waiting lists because we can’t accommodate the growing number of children,” Kuritz said.

All those kids, and their aging grandparents, have helped push Palm Beach County’s Jewish population to an estimated 255,000, meaning that at least one in five of the county’s 1.2 million residents is Jewish. That gives Palm Beach County a higher concentration of Jews than any metropolitan area in the world outside Israel, including New York City.

In southern Palm Beach County, the number of Jews younger than 17 has jumped by 103 percent in the past decade, far exceeding a 13 percent overall population rise there.

Jews are still a rarity in Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay and the remote farming towns of western Palm Beach County. But throughout the county’s more densely populated eastern half, synagogues, bagel shops, kosher pizza joints and Jewish retirement communities seem almost as numerous as palm trees.

The 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.

About 77 percent of the county’s Jewish population lives in Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach or the Western unincorporated areas of these three cities.

The survey was conducted by University of Miami researcher Ira Sheskin, who prepared a similar study for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

“The study is likely to change people’s perceptions of what the Palm Beach County Jewish community is like,” said Sheskin, who already has conducted 38 major studies of Jewish communities throughout the country.

Among other things, Sheskin found that 78 percent of the county’s 230,000 seniors — about 180,000 people — are Jewish.

In addition, the county’s Jewish population continues to be the oldest in the nation. Its median age of 70 compares to a median age of 59.4 in Broward County, 50.7 in Miami and a national Jewish median age of 38.8. Fifty-seven percent of the Palm Beach County Jewish population is 65 or older.

“My first reaction when I saw the numbers was, ‘Wow, this really speaks to the need for a Jewish family service agency,’ ” said Jaclynn Faffer, executive director of the Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service of South Palm Beach County.

“But my second reaction was, ‘how will we get the funding to support all that we’re going to need to do?’ We have a significant proportion of people 85 or older. JFS already had programs in place to support frail elderly people at home, but these numbers are so astounding that I know we’re probably going to have to double our senior staff.”

Faffer, whose $5 million annual budget is funded by the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, said her agency is fortunate to be headquartered in Boca Raton, home to many Jewish millionaires and multimillionaires.

On the other hand, there also are poor Jews living in Boca trailer parks.

Jews have lived in Palm Beach County since 1900, when Jewish merchants thrived on Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach. The county’s first synagogue, Temple Israel, was established in 1923, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the influx really began, fueled by middle-class New Yorkers in their early 60s coming down to Florida to live out their golden years.

A case in point is Jules Grossberg, a retired insurance broker from the Bronx. Nearly 20 years ago, Grossberg and his wife, Florence, a retired nurse, moved into Kings Point, a sprawling retirement community west of Delray Beach. The Grossbergs say they have no regrets.

“When we first came down here, there were only three shuls in our area — one Reform, one Conservative and one Orthodox. Now there are many more, plus Chabad,” said Grossberg, who calls himself a cultural rather than an observant Jew. “And the area is being built up tremendously. Every piece of vacant land is being built on.”

Grossberg, 84, estimates that at least 95 percent of Kings Point’s 14,000 residents are Jewish. In fact, there are no non-Jews in the 48 units of the building where the Grossbergs live.

The same is largely true of Century Village, a retirement community founded by developer H. Irwin Levy in the 1960s. There are now three Century Villages in Palm Beach County — in West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton — as well as the newest Century Village in Broward County’s Pembroke Pines.

“What’s interesting — and we know this, based upon the Miami study — is that Miami-Dade’s Jewish population is the youngest of the four federations in South Florida,” says Richard Jacobs, vice president of community relations at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. “Many people have this image of little old ladies on the boardwalk, but those little old ladies have died. There’s been a northern migration of elderly people into this area for a while, mainly Dade and some Broward residents.”

Yet Palm Beach County isn’t attracting only retirees.

Bob Levitz, 55, moved to Boca Raton in 1989 because it was close to his former job at a newspaper in Lantana. He now commutes south every day to Pembroke Pines, where he works as a copy editor at the Miami Herald, but has kept his house in Boca because it’s affordable, and because he likes being surrounded by Jewish culture.

“Judaism is part of the fabric of everyday life here,” says Levitz, a native of St. Paul, Minn., who isn’t religious but attends High Holiday services each year at the Boca Raton Synagogue with his 15-year-old daughter Ashley.

As the area’s Jewish population keeps growing, local Jewish institutions will need to expand their donor bases dramatically, warns Rabbi Alan Sherman, executive director of the Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis.

“This puts a tremendous responsibility on Jewish institutions for caring for all these newly transplanted people,” he told JTA. “A lot of people have their roots up north, and their donations go up north as well. But when they need a nursing home or senior services, they won’t ask their former communities in New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania; they’ll come to us. So these people are putting a burden on us if they don’t contribute locally.”

Sherman, whose organization represents 70 rabbis, adds that “even though the demand for senior services is increasing, there are also younger people moving here, and we can’t neglect them. We can’t neglect Jewish education or teenagers.”

That’s keeping Kuritz and her early childhood development staff at the Boynton Beach JCC busy.

“What we’re doing here is building the foundation for all our children to have Jewish memories — lighting Shabbas candles, blowing the shofar, singing Jewish songs,” she explained as a noisy group of kindergarten kids trooped down the hall. “We’re not a religious school, but we do try to teach Jewish values.”

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