For seniors heading west, Jewish life becomes a build-it-yourself activity


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (JTA) — Jean and Arnold Palestine are glad to be back home — an attached condo unit overlooking the craggy red mountains of the Arizona desert.

Having just returned from a winter visit to Florida, the octogenarian New Yorkers are pleased that they chose to retire to the arid Western desert in 1992 rather than move down south.

“There were so many old  people there,” said Jean, at age 80 slightly shorter than the 6 feet of her youth. “What did we see, Arnie? Old people with walkers, walking slowly, eating their early-bird dinners. I felt as though they had given up.”

Once it seemed almost a biblical requirement for Jewish seniors to retire to Florida, particularly Miami Beach. Collins Avenue, after its Hollywood/Mafia heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, and before its South Beach revival in the ’80s and ’90s, became a veritable Grandparents Row with daily shuffleboard, mah jongg games and the discount dinners.

Miami and the burgeoning Boca Raton community nearby remain prime destinations for Jewish retirees and snowbirds — retirees who winter away but return to their home states when the frost thaws. But Jewish seniors are also beginning to move West — to western Florida and to the real West in places such as Arizona, Palm Springs, San Diego and Las Vegas.

“American Jews, like Americans in general, spent the latter part of the ’90s moving generally south and west,” said Lawrence Kotler-Berkowitz, director of research and analysis at the United Jewish Communities.

Like younger Jews who leave the New York metropolitan area and find a different kind of Judaism, seniors find out that Jewish life is harder to come by — but often better — when you have to build it yourself.

“Jewish life is what you make of it,” said Yaacov Rone, a Conservative rabbi who has worked on both coasts and just spent his third winter in Palm Springs, Calif. “There’s the time-zone change, the no direct flights — many [East Coast] people see that as an obstacle. We don’t.”

For Cecile Siegel, moving from Long Island, N.Y., to Scottsdale forced her to become more Jewishly active.

“The feeling you got was that we didn’t have to be Jewish in Long Island or New York — even the Italians were Jewish,” she said.

Siegel and her husband retired to Arizona, following their son, and she became “a temple person rather than a Hadassah person” — two common avenues for senior Jewish women’s involvement.

After years of involvement at Temple Solel, a Reform congregation in Scottsdale, Siegel joined a breakaway group that founded a nondenominational independent congregation, Kehilla of Arizona.

“I think it’s a wonderful community for Jewish people — there’s so much to offer, and there’s a warmth and they are together on many things,” she said.

But moving from a large Jewish center to a smaller community is difficult, and in communities with many seniors, it’s even more challenging.

“For many people, ‘home’ is somewhere else,” said Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman of the Kehilla of Arizona. That often means their donations and time go to their “home” communities.

“Phoenix is only beginning to put down its roots despite its long Jewish history,” said Sharfman, whose parents followed her to Arizona and are very involved in the community. (Her father runs the Yiddish club.)  “The community is rapidly changing, and there’s tremendous potential we haven’t fully explored.”

With its dry heat, vast mountain ranges and lush golf courses, the Palm Desert region is similar to Arizona, but without the cacti. Of the 18,000 Jews in the region (Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indio), only 18 percent are affiliated.

“It’s a growing community that is still very much in the time frame of building itself institutionally,” said Alan Klugman, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Palm Springs and Desert Area. “The actual institutions [like] the synagogues are defining what they want to be, how they service the community and how they reach out to community members.”

In seniors-heavy Jewish communities such as Palm Desert or Phoenix, another challenge for community builders is seniors who self-affiliate, either living at country clubs or seniors-only residences such as Sun City (which some call “Disneyland for Seniors” ), and the tight, fixed-income budgets of seniors.

“We find the same challenges of membership — if you have 20 percent affiliation rate, that’s great,” said Rabbi Shelley Moss of Temple Beth Shalom and Jewish Community Center of the Northwest Valley, a Reform congregation with 400 member units in Sun City, Ariz. “I’ll bump into people all the time who are Jewish who don’t hesitate to show up for High Holiday services but don’t join the congregation.”

Many Jewish seniors who live in Sun Cities also join chavurot — groups that are less stringently religious and more social that feature low membership costs.

Sometimes, though, trends reverse, and the young follow the elderly. Though it hasn’t been the case in Palm Desert, in retirement meccas such as Florida and Arizona, younger people are beginning to recognize the beauty of living in warm-weather climates, too.

“We’ve just gone multi-generational,” Moss said, noting the recent opening at the temple’s religious school for kindergarten to eighth grade and b’nai mitzvah training. “And I bet within five to seven years [the region] will grow deep Jewish roots.”

While there is scant information on national trends for Jewish seniors — the National Jewish Population Survey is a decade old and covers the 1990s — anecdotal evidence suggests that many are moving west either to be near their children or because they come from the West and the Midwest.

“Almost no Jews have moved to Florida from the West Coast,” said Ira Sheskin, the director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies at the University of Miami. “Less than 2 percent.”

And nearly all the Jewish seniors who move west are looking for a change from what once was the inevitable Miami migration.

“Like all New Yorkers, we thought we have to beat the winters and go to Florida,” said Arnie Palestine (his name is a relic of ancestors who had moved to prestate Israel). But after a few visits to Phoenix, the couple realized that despite their family on the East Coast, they would rather move west.

“There’s no humidity here, there’s dry heat. There’s more culture here,” he said, noting that the Scottsdale community has grown significantly since they arrived in 1992. (There’s a new 12,500 square-foot, Jewish star-shaped JCC with 6,000 members, 40 percent seniors.) “We have Broadway here, we have music, we have art, we have opera. We have everything you’d want.”

With one son in Northern California and a daughter back east, it was a tough call for Lorraine and Ira Kurtze to pick Las Vegas over Florida for retirement. But 3 1/2 years ago, the Long Island couple moved to Sin City.

“I personally don’t like the people in Florida. I find them to be crotchety old people, very into themselves, not very friendly,” Lorraine Kurtze said, attributing it to clannishness of too many New Yorkers in one place.

“Here we find people go out of their way to be friendly,” she said. Ironically, many of her friends are Jewish New Yorkers who also relocated to Vegas.

She also likes Las Vegas’ culture. Living in Sienna, an upscale retirement community 20 minutes from the strip, the Kurtzes often go to live shows (often free to locals), and ’50s-style dancing, as well as to dinner with new friends — and old friends visiting from the East Coast. They visit their children in California and New York.

Rone says in Palm Springs there are “very few” East Coast Jews. Mostly the residents are from Minnesota, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles.

It doesn’t matter to Rone.

 “We love the desert. We love the ambiance, we love the topography, we love the geography," he said. "We came here many years ago on business and fell in love with the place. We decided when we retired it would be here.”

But with only one son in Seattle and the rest of the family on the East Coast, the Rones only stay in California for the winter.

“Family’s the only reason we’re not here all year,” he said.

With the faltering economy, predicting where anyone will move is difficult, including Jewish seniors. On the one hand, with stock, pension and housing prices tumbling, Sheskin said “people might be reluctant to move.”

“On the other hand, if you could downsize from a five-bedroom house in New York to a two-bedroom condominium in Florida” — for those who can sell at a decent price — “that may have its advantages,” he said.

But some East Coast Jews are actually not moving south at all — unless you count south as southern New Jersey.  According to the 2008 Jewish Community Study of Middlesex County, in the central part of New Jersey, many Jews are moving to southern counties and not out of state.

Actually, Sheskin said, in the general population 95 percent of Americans at age 70 are living in the same house as they did at 65. And while Jewish seniors may move and migrate at a higher rate — he estimates about 80 percent to 85 percent — many people stay home.

“We’ve always been under the impression that when people turn 65 they retire and move," he said. "I’m trying to dispel the impression that every Jew in New York is moving to Miami. They’re not.”

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