By Janis Fontaine
Forty years ago, a few Jewish leaders from southern Palm Beach County realized that the county was too vast, and its Jewish population was growing too fast, for a single, countywide Jewish Federation to be effective.
Together, this group — James Baer, Karl Enselberg, Albert Gortz, Phyllis Cohen, Shirley Enselberg and Marjorie Baer — signed the original articles of incorporation, filed with the state on Nov. 1, 1979, and saw the organization blossom, just like they thought it would.
When the Jewish Federation began, the Jewish population in that area was around 15,000 people, and its leadership could fit around a kitchen table, said Al Gortz, former vice president as well as chair of the Federation Board.
The first agency the federation founded was its social services arm, which met basic needs such as food, clothing, housing and health care, and stabilized the community. Its first staff member was a single part-time social worker.
Today, Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services helps thousands of people each year.
Renamed now as the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, it’s one of more than 150 federations in North America that all share one purpose: Raise money to support the Jewish population, locally and worldwide, and make sure the money gets to where it will do the most good.
Each federation serves its local community, first and foremost, and experts estimate 75 percent of that money, which comes from individual donors, grants, endowments, capital projects, private donations, fundraising events, membership dues and special initiatives, stays in the local community.
In 2015, the South County federation raised unrestricted contributions of more than $15.25 million, an increase over the previous year (for the fifth year in a row), plus another $527,000 in restricted income.
And like the money, every year the population grows.
Locally, that money is invested in the federation’s 100-acre campus in southwestern Palm Beach County, a hub of help, activity and information, home to schools and social services. It serves the youngest citizens with multiple Jewish preschools, elementary and high schools, and the oldest at the Toby & Leon Cooperman Sinai Residences, where older adults age in place under the care of people who see the jobs as a calling.
“I am very proud of our campus because it represents the best of what we can do,” said Matt Levin, federation president and CEO.
The federation says the most significant change to the Jewish population in South County is a drop in the median age from age 76 to 59, a finding supported by a 2019 Brandeis University study that reported the median age of the local Jewish community had dropped by 10 years. New residents are no longer retirees but young families that need schools, services, recreation and a place to turn when they need help.
All Jews are no more alike than all Christians are, and Levin says “modern Judaism has a place for everyone.”
He says denomination shouldn’t separate Jews from one another but draw them together under one grand blanket.
By the numbers, the federation’s 2018 study reported its local residents were: 37 percent Reform, 25 percent Conservative, 15 and 14 percent Just Jewish and secular, 8 percent Orthodox and 1 percent were classified as other.
Levin says all denominations are welcomed. To set parameters for behavior and to unify them, Levin and 17 other rabbis and Jewish leaders signed a Civility Statement of Public Disclosure, and committed themselves to good and proper conduct in speaking and listening, even during “vigorous debate about political and social issues.”
This commitment to unity and acceptance helped earn the federation the International Jerusalem Unity Prize in 2018, a prestigious award that “acknowledges the efforts of organizations and individuals in the Jewish world who actively work to advance unity.”
In keeping with the unity theme, the federation sent a delegation of six local rabbis to receive the prize at the home of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
But the leaders caution: Don’t mistake civility for weakness. The Jewish Community Relations Council steps in with help during emergencies, but it also fights anti-Semitism, whether in our courts, our newspapers or our schools, and it stands up and fights vehemently for any Jew — really any person — being exploited or abused.
Helene Paul of east Boca Raton will wield the gavel at the local Jewish Community Relations Council this year, where she’ll lead the charge to improve life for Jews in South County.
“If you need help, or you want to help, that’s why we’re here,” Paul said by phone from Martha’s Vineyard. An ongoing responsibility, Paul said, is “making sure Holocaust survivors’ needs are met.”
That’s right in line with the federation’s ultimate goal, Levin said: “To bring harmony to the community and expand the way we can touch people’s lives.”
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.