Not just seniors fueling Floridas Jewish population growth

boynton beach, fla. | Boynton Beach, once a sleepy Christian town halfway between Boca Raton and West Palm Beach, has emerged as “ground zero” for 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 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 recently 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.

“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.

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 fewer 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.

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

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.

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.

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, 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 Holy Day 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.

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.”

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 Shabbos candles, blowing the shofar, singing Jewish songs.”

Who are the Jews of Palm Beach County?