Retire the clichés: Florida not just for old Jews anymore

hollywood, fla.  |  At the Urban Rustic Café in a strip mall in this city located between Miami to the south and the Palm Beach retirement communities to the north, the line for a table stretches out the door and into the parking lot.

Inside the kosher establishment, an elderly Orthodox man  leans across a table to hear what his wife is saying. At the dessert counter, a gaggle of boys with tzitzit fringes hanging from their shirts have their noses pressed against the glass.

Nearby, two stylishly dressed 30-something women chatter away in Spanish, one rocking a young baby. As a passing waitress bumps hips with a busboy, the two have a brief exchange in rapid-fire Hebrew.

A new religious afterschool program at Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Fla., is a sign of the growing presence of young Jewish families. photo/uriel heilman

Welcome to South Florida’s Jewish community, an amalgam of retirees, Latin American immigrants, Orthodox families, Holocaust survivors and plenty more.

More than a half-million Jews live in the three counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, making the region America’s third-largest Jewish metro area behind only New York and Los Angeles (the Bay Area is fourth). Add in the smaller Jewish communities elsewhere in Florida, and 1 of every 10 American Jews resides in the Sunshine State.

While many are retirees, Florida isn’t just a place for elderly Jews. Lower costs of living than in the Northeast, the lack of state income tax, Jewish institutional infrastructure, the draw of Miami to Latin American immigrants and the weather have helped turn Florida into one of America’s largest, most diverse Jewish communities.

“I think today we are no longer simply a retirement community,” said Jewish demographer Ira Sheskin, a professor of geography at the University of Miami.

The Jews of South Florida boast several distinctions. Palm Beach County has the oldest median Jewish age in the country, 70, according to the last Jewish community study of the area. The southern part of Palm Beach County has the highest density in the country of Jews proportionate to the total population: 49 percent, according to the same survey.

In the Miami area, a massive influx of Latin American immigrants since 2000, particularly from Venezuela, Argentina and Mexico, has reduced the Jewish community’s average age and brought far more Latin American diversity to a population whose Spanish speakers once were overwhelmingly Cuban exiles. The last Jewish population study conducted in Miami-Dade, in 2004, found that the county had the largest percentage of foreign-born Jews of any Jewish community in America.

“We’re such an international community,” said Jacob Solomon, CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “Clearly, the big story is the continuing Latin immigration and what that means.”

Nobody knows for certain how many Jews live in South Florida, because the most recent community studies are about a decade old. At last count, local federations’ studies of Jews found 256,000 in Palm Beach County (2005); 186,500 in Broward County (2008); and 113,000 in Miami-Dade (2004). Miami began work on a new survey last month, but the results are not expected until fall.

Even without solid numbers, however, there are some clear signs of the changes underway.

As in many other regions across the country, there has been a significant expansion over the last decade or two in Orthodox synagogues, kosher restaurants and Jewish day schools, suggesting that the area’s Orthodox population is growing, particularly in Hollywood, Miami Beach, Aventura and Boca Raton.

“Boca has the largest density in the Miami area of Jewish people per square mile,” said Deborah Shapiro, manager of loyalty marketing at the big-box grocery retailer Winn-Dixie, which conducted extensive demographic research in the area before investing $3 million to revamp its Boca Raton supermarket last year to focus on kosher consumers.

Since completing the remodeling, business in the store’s kosher departments has tripled, according to Shapiro.

In Miami Beach, the story has been the growing number of young families, prompting the recent construction of a new building for the JCC. Completed in October 2012, the 37,000-square-foot Miami Beach JCC already has 1,700 member units — about 5,000 people.

“The influx of young families gave momentum to the project,” said Jay Roth, the JCC’s executive director.

A few miles to the north, the community around the Michael-Ann Russell JCC in North Miami Beach, near Aventura, also is growing, thanks to Latin American Jewish families.

Located between an Orthodox-run, 1,000-student day school on one side and a 440-student Reform Jewish day school and synagogue on the other, the JCC’s single-largest constituency is Latin American Jewish immigrants who have moved to the area since 2000 fleeing economic or political insecurity at home. At both day schools the students are mostly Latin American.

“In the last 15 years there’s been a gradual increase in the number of Spanish-speaking kids,” said Nancy Posner, head of the Reform day school, Jacobson Sinai Academy.

The story of Florida Jewry has not been one of un-checked growth.

The Jewish community of Miami-Dade is still far below its peak, when it numbered nearly 250,000 in the late 1970s, and Broward County is down from its high of nearly 300,000 in 1990, losing 55,000 Jews in the past 15 years.

“Over the past 20 years or so, there clearly has been a drop-off as retirees have passed away or moved back north to move in with their adult children,” said Eric Stillman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Broward County.

What’s different about South Florida today is that the region increasingly is a place where second- and third-generation Jews are being born, growing up and choosing to raise families of their own.

While Miami-Dade has the fewest Jews of the three counties, its population is the most stable because it has more young people and fewer retirees.

And in Palm Beach County, which remains the No. 1 destination in America for Jewish retirees, the Jewish population exploded in the 1990s and early 2000s. While growth probably has leveled off, according to Sheskin’s demographic estimates, the expected retirement of the baby boomers likely will help Palm Beach keep up its Jewish numbers in the coming years.

“Increasingly, Florida is a place where people come and stay,” said Roth of the Miami Beach JCC.