Alice in Bocaland

I don’t usually play croquet when I visit my dad in Florida. But I couldn’t resist the sign on the neatly manicured lawn at the Boca Raton Resort & Club: “Complimentary croquet lessons, tomorrow at 9:30.”

“Wear your whites,” the hotel concierge advised. So I did, feeling madly British. The two legitimate Brits sharing the lesson with me paid no attention to the dress code; it’s their game, they can do what they want. The woman showed up in flip-flops.

The teacher introduced himself as Alan Goldstein and a member of the resort’s long-standing members-only croquet club. I stifled a chuckle. Half of Boca is Jewish, but still — croquet?

Alan and I creamed the Brits, by the way, 5-to-1. Along the way, he let on that he was a former board chair of the Jewish federation in Boston, as well as its Jewish community center. A snowbird, he’s still involved in Jewish communal affairs up north. As we were finishing our game, a couple of older women showed up with their balls and mallets. Somehow, I knew they were also of the tribe.

“So what makes this game Jewish?” I asked one of the women. “We do,” she shot back with a laugh. “This is the only club that would let us in.”

Dona Nenner was engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but not by much. About 12 years ago, her late husband — a physician and Holocaust survivor — became one of the first Jews admitted to the Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club, a famously restricted club across the street from the Boca Resort. Restricted, as in no Jews, no blacks. The Nenners were already club members at the Boca Resort, but the commodore, or president, of the Royal Palm country club asked them to join there as well.

“There was a lawsuit going on, and maybe they wanted to get in some Jewish members,” she said. “We were the tokens.”

A club in Boca that didn’t admit Jews, in this century? Come on now. That can’t be right. But as I started sleuthing, the story came to light, and yes — it really was so.

I knew that anti-Jewish restrictions existed decades ago in South Florida, from Miami Beach on up. “Way back when, everything along the beach was restricted, all of East Boca,” said Joy Binkovitz, a friend of my dad’s who’s lived in Boca Raton since 1988. “I was at a McDonalds convention at the Boca [Resort] in 1972; we were the only Jews in the hotel.”

As more Jews from the Northeast started coming to Boca for the winter, they looked west, building gated communities with attached country clubs farther inland: Boca West in 1969, Boca Lago in 1975, then others including Boca Pointe, where my parents live. The country clubs in West Boca were primarily Jewish, but never exclusively. Time passed, and slowly the East Boca clubs opened up to Jews and other minorities — all except one.

“Royal Palm was definitely not Jewish,” Joy told me. But she didn’t know the details. Nor did the next few folks I reached by phone, each one referring me to someone else who “might know more.”

The South Palm Beach federation was no help — a spokeswoman told me there was “no one to speak about this” and that it was “ancient history” anyway.

Finally I got to the right guy: Rabbi Bruce Warshal, the 79-year-old publisher emeritus of the Jewish Journal of South Florida, and the man who led the charge to integrate Royal Palm.

Before he joined the newspaper business in 1991, Bruce was the founding executive director of the local Jewish federation. In 1993, as the publisher of 20 community papers including the Jewish Journal, he launched his Royal Palm campaign.

“It bothered me that in the middle of Boca you had this restricted club,” he told me. Royal Palm is one of many gated communities where one can own a home without being required to join the attached country club. According to South Palm Beach federation estimates, about 20 percent of the 670 homeowners in Royal Palm were Jewish, but none could join the country club. “Their backyards butt up to a golf course where they couldn’t play,” Bruce said.

As late as 2001, Royal Palm had just one Jewish member, a man married to a non-Jewish woman whose father was a longtime member and who pushed for his son-in-law to be admitted.  (Two Jewish women married non-Jews who were members, but as membership isonly held in the husband’s name, they hardly counted.)

The restriction was an unspoken “gentlemen’s agreement.” Nothing on the books stated that Jews or other minorities couldn’t join. But you couldn’t just apply for membership; you needed to be sponsored by at least two other members. And existing members simply did not sponsor Jews.

I felt as if I’d slipped through the looking glass.

Ironically, one of the club’s founders was married to a Jewish woman, “a very nice woman, big philanthropist,” Bruce said. In 1995, under cover of night, she slipped Bruce a copy of the club’s membership roster, which he published on the front page of every one of his newspapers under the headline “Find the Jews.”

He thought that would embarrass the club leadership into changing its policies. But it didn’t. Nor did phone calls and a letter in 2000 from newly elected Gov. Jeb Bush, whom Bruce recruited to the cause through a Republican backer (Warshal is a Democrat). “They ignored him,” he said.

On Feb. 28, 2001, the story hit the Wall Street Journal and was quickly picked up in media outlets across the country, particularly in cities where club leaders maintained their primary residences. An April 8, 2001 article in the Toledo Blade quoted longtime club member Charles Miller, owner of a travel agency in the Ohio city, admitting that the Royal Palm had no black members, “but we have Italians, and some of them are pretty dark-skinned.”

In May 2001, a committee Bruce formed to pressure the club into changing its policies filed a lawsuit against Royal Palm, on behalf of a Jewish man who lived in the community. The club’s records were turned over to the state’s attorney general, and in February 2002, a settlement was reached: The club would be overseen by the state attorney for the next two years, anyone could apply, and the club would actively seek Jewish members.

“And it happened,” Bruce told me. “They followed through.” There was a younger group of club members in their 40s and 50s who had been quietly chafing at the previous discrimination. That group took over leadership, and in the decade since the settlement, more and more Jews and African Americans have joined Royal Palm, undeterred by a one-time initiation fee that currently tops out at $80,000. And that’s not counting annual dues.

So that’s the story Dona Nenner was trying to explain, even though she didn’t have all the pieces of it. Sadly, in 2004, a year after her husband was admitted as a member, he died. Now paying dues at two clubs, Dona decided to sell her home in Royal Palm and stick with Boca Resort, where she had her closest friends.

The croquet club at Boca Resort isn’t doing well, she told me. It’s down from 40 members to about 20. Almost all of them are Jewish. “A lot of people lost money because of [Bernie] Madoff,” she said, noting that you have to be a member of the resort’s country club in order to join the croquet club, and that’s a hefty burden. To help the mostly elderly players, Dona said the Boca Resort has quietly dropped the annual croquet club dues of about $300 — but you still have to pay regular country club dues of several thousand dollars a year.

Dona felt badly about asking to leave Royal Palm. “Here I was, one of their only Jewish members, they didn’t want it to look like they blackballed us,” she said. But, she said, the club “was very nice” about her request to quit.

“Being a widow, I didn’t want to be there with 80- and 90-year-old gentile men. So they gave me back my money.”

Sue Fishkoff
is the editor of J. and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].