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JCC, Synagogues In Holy War In Boca
Bitter turf battle as JCC offers Rosh HaShanah services for first time; move is ‘usurpation,’ cries a rabbi.
Staff Writer
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Boca Raton, Fla. — Since moving here five years ago, Laura Reiss and her husband have not found a synagogue they are comfortable enough to join.

But when the High Holy Days begin Wednesday night, they and their three young daughters plan to attend a two-hour program featuring selected prayers at the Levis Jewish Community Center here — accompanied by their mothers, who have not been to synagogue services in more than 20 years. Reiss’ sister, who is intermarried, is also coming and bringing her family.

Then there’s Eric Neuman, who joined a Conservative synagogue when he moved here four years ago from West Orange, N.J., with his wife and three young children. But after being “uninvolved and uninspired” at the synagogue, he too is planning to attend the High Holy Day program at the JCC here.

Both Neuman and Reiss said the JCC’s newly hired charismatic rabbi, Michael Stern, was the reason they decided to attend.

“We met for coffee, learned a little bit, and there was a connection,” Neuman said.

Reiss put it this way: “After meeting with the rabbi, I knew I was going to become more involved. He’s already been to our home and met my friends to find out what they want and are looking for [in Judaism].”

Reiss and Neuman will not be alone when they take their seats at the Levis JCC on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. As of last week, 50 people had signed up for the JCC’s Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur programs — the first time the JCC has offered them.

And whether or not Reiss and Neuman know it, the JCC’s decision has ignited a war in this heavily Jewish Broward County community. As synagogues around the country struggle with membership numbers and count on the High Holy Days to sign up congregants, thereby padding their coffers, rabbis here are seeing the JCC’s action as “usurpation” and an “invasion.” There are even fears that Boca synagogues might ban a representative of the Jewish federation, which funds the JCC, from making his annual High Holy Day pitch.

And as JCCs around the country shed their old image of being merely a gym and a pool and instead search for a new mission — including offering services and religious programming, particularly aimed at the large numbers of unaffiliated Jews — the turf battle in Boca is the leading edge of a trend that is likely to play out all over the country in the coming years.

“We are targeting the unaffiliated and marginally affiliated who are not experiencing the holidays elsewhere,” explained Marty Schneer, the JCC’s executive director.

According to figures from the local Jewish federation, only 12 percent of the more than 120,000 Jews in South Palm Beach County are affiliated with a synagogue.

“A woman told us her husband is not Jewish and that he loves coming here but he would not go to a synagogue and pay $1,500,” Schneer said. “She wanted to know what we could do for her. … We’re offering a program, not a service.” (Prices range from $90 for singles, $170 for couples and $200 for families — all non-member rates.)

But Rabbi Gerald Weiss, spiritual leader of Beth Ami Congregation, a Conservative synagogue here, doesn’t see it that way, and he and other Reform and Conservative pulpit rabbis are enraged at the JCC’s action.

“They have hired an outside rabbi, they’re saying the Kol Nidre prayer and they’re having a kiddush — they’re running a service and in so doing they have violated longstanding agreements in this community about our separate roles and missions,” Rabbi Weiss said.

“What they are doing,” Rabbi Weiss continued, “is a usurpation and invasion of the synagogues here. This is what we do. They have stepped over the line and are acting as a synagogue.”

The 92nd Street Y in Manhattan is believed to be the only other JCC of the 200 in the country offering programs on the High Holy Days — the Y calls its program “Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur Services.” (See sidebar below.) High Holy Day services will also be conducted at the Y’s Tribeca branch.

New York, though, is unique in many ways, given the number of Jewish options, so that a JCC opening on the High Holy Days there may not have nearly the impact of one opening for Rosh HaShanah in a small city, where the Jewish options are more limited.

As JCCs continue to alter their mission, and message, the president of the JCC Association of North America, Allan Finkelstein, said he expects more and more JCCs to add religious programming.

“In the last year and a half, I’ve been pushing JCCs to get into conversations about what is happening in Jewish life,” he said.

Finkelstein said he asked the JCCs “what we need to be doing going forward, and what energized us was a remembrance of our Jewish core.

“Not everyone wants to daven [pray],” he added. “We want to find ways to go to primarily young families and say to them that we want to make Jewish engagement easier for you.”

What is happening in Boca Raton, Finkelstein insisted, is a struggle “about power and turf. … I’m not suggesting that JCCs should do bar mitzvahs and weddings, but we are in the Jewish education and engagement business.”

The JCCs are hardly the first to “infringe” on the synagogues’ turf.

Many of the gated communities in Boca Raton hire a rabbi and conduct their own High Holy Day services, and other rabbis rent space in storefronts in which to hold services.

Nationally, a growing number of families are turning to Chabad houses, which impose few financial or membership requirements, and private tutors — many of whom will officiate at bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies.

Several rabbis in Boca Raton expressed the belief that the decision by the JCC here to hold a High Holy Day program is because the center’s original mission may have run its course.

“Jewish community centers were created for Jews who couldn’t get into the local YMCA,” said Rabbi Daniel Levin, senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, a Reform congregation. “They could go there to meet and have cultural activities.

“But as Jews became more integrated into society … the JCC has had to rethink its mission. What I fear is that without collaboration between the JCC and the synagogue community, we will have a duplication of effort at a time when synagogues are also thinking of how best to serve the Jewish community.”

For another local rabbi, David Steinhardt of B’Nai Torah Congregation, a Conservative synagogue, “this conflict is essentially about process and funding.

“The JCC is funded by the community and members of the community support the Jewish federation and the JCC for the services it has typically done,” he said. “Now the JCC is going into the realm of religious programming and they have a rabbi leading them. It appears to me to be a different realm, and therein lies the conflict.

“They may have been recreational centers for Jews a generation ago, but they don’t have a real clear mission these days. In searching for that mission, they are looking to bring in the unaffiliated — which I’m sure includes a lot of intermarried — and they have determined to do this without conversation with communal leaders of the federation or synagogue leadership, which is unfortunate.”

Leaders of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County insist they had nothing to do with the JCC’s action, and even discouraged it.

“It was my advice and counsel and that of our leadership that this is a program we hoped would not be implemented this year,” said William Bernstein, the federation’s president and CEO. “We hoped there would be more discussion and dialogue with the rabbis. But the agency felt it was in its purview to move ahead. We don’t have veto power over their board decisions.”

He stressed that the federation funds only specific programs at the JCC and that the High Holy Day programs were not “funded, approved or sanctioned” by the federation.

“This is purely a JCC program,” he said. “The onus of responsibility is on the JCC.”

Schneer, the JCC executive director, said he did not consult the area rabbis because they strenuously objected when the JCC introduced a Sunday school every other week for 4- to 6-year-olds. About 35 youngsters enrolled, nearly a third of whom have intermarried parents.

Rabbi Michael Stern, who will be conducting the two-hour High Holy Day programs, stressed that the programs would include “five or six pieces of the traditional service, stories that illustrate insight about the prayers, an explanation about the function of prayer and what we are trying to get out of prayer.”

“My goal is to build a vibrant JCC community with the emphasis on the Jewish part of the JCC,” he said. “We are the frontline agency that touches more Jews than any other institution, particularly the intermarried. What should our response be?”

Stephanie Owitz, the JCC’s president, said she sees the High Holy Day program as a “portal to greater involvement in Jewish life. … I’m looking forward to the interactive part to be inspired and engaged.”

Last Update:

09/27/2011 - 05:01
Boca Raton, Eric Neuman, High Holidays, JCC, Jewish life, Stephanie Owitz, William Bernstein
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Even with all this competition, there are still people with no place to go on the high holidays and even sometimes on the Sabbath. Some synagogues in the area turn away people who don't fit their idea of what they want in a congregation. If they don't actively turn them away, then they fail to engage newcomers and make them feel like they have a chance to participate. Cliquish synagogues can make a person feel very unwelcome. I also can't understand why some synagogues are paying non-Jews to come and perform music during the High Holidays when there are people with no place to go for the holidays who would love to do the same thing for free and who are every bit as talented.

The problem is that these temples grew so fast several years ago that they need to make money during the High Holidays to maintain their infrastracture. Many congregants are struggling financially and are not in a position to pay membership dues or even for High Holiday tickets to support Rabbis with their $200,000 salaries and other benefits they get as clergy. The logistical issues that surround the High Holidays tickets,parking, fund raising appeals diminish the spiritual meaning of the high holidays for me and I suspect other Jews.

I think it is very important for the JCC to remain a place where Jews of all kinds can get together and do things. In our JCC, the Reconstructionist Havurah and the Secular Humanist congregations rent space an have services. For several years, the Reform community held religious school classes there as their shul did not have enough space. However the leadership of our JCC reaches out to and maintains ties with all the congregations in town. If a group of Jews wants to start something in the JCC, that is great. When the leadership of the JCC decides to run services, it gets to be a problem as then the rabbis of various congregations in town feel like the JCC is undercutting them. I also would not want to see the JCC led by a rabbi. If you pick an Orthodox one, you get rules the Reform don't want to follow. If you get a Reform one, the Orthodox sulk in the corner and say the Reform rabbi is not a real rabbi. The JCC is a great place precisely because all kinds of Jews come together on an equal footing Let's keep it that way.
Stewart Ain, Its a shame that you had to use such harsh title of "Holy War", so close to September 11th. Even when pun intended. Are we \becoming our worst enemies?
Dear K’vetching Rabbis: This would be ridiculously funny, if it was not sooo shamefuly sad. As an affiliated Jew, I am ashamed to read this article. How is it that we always manage to find things to fight about and publically criticize each other, especially during the Yamim Noraim [Days of Awe]? The more places we can provide for Jewish families to practice and feel connected to Judaism; the better it is for us as a nation. We should not always think about political, financial or selfish motives. The JCC is doing a good thing for the Jews in the Community; and finally living up to the “J” in its JCC name. So Rabbis, “go ahead, make my day”, stop K’vetching, and start inspiring these thousands of unaffiliated Jews. They are waiting for you all. I am personally very happy with the JCC initiative, and I shall rejoice if the JCC helped even ONE Jew obtain a spiritual connection during these high holidays. L’shana Tovah, and may our lives be filled with true Ahavat Israel in the coming year
How do you know that the JCC has listened to their people? You also assume that synagogues aren't having 'learner's programs' like the JCC; perhaps they are? Remember, this service is not free and let's face it, ultimately, the JCC wants them to pay them membership. So what is the difference between the JCC and the synagogues? They both want more members! They shouldn't be in competition with each other, they should be working together. You may look at this as great, but these programs have the potential to tear communities apart. As we reach Rosh Hashanah, I hope that we realize that our people must work together for a brighter Jewish future rather than work against each other.
Rabbi Weiss was quoted as saying: “They have hired an outside rabbi, they’re saying the Kol Nidre prayer and they’re having a kiddush — they’re running a service and in so doing they have violated longstanding agreements in this community about our separate roles and missions,” Rabbi Weiss said. The separate roles and missions of the JCC and synagogues are not clear cut. Initially the JCC was the Jewish agency that provided a Jewish preschool environment. Since the synagogues have stepped into that area, the roles and missions of the JCC and the synagogues have begun to overlap more, and the synagogues don't have the right to criticize the programs offered by the JCC. In addition, in a town where 2/3 of the Jews are unaffiliated, why shouldn't the JCC attempt to create an environment where those Jews can become more Jewishly engaged? After all, this is NOT a formal prayer service, it is a program where Jews can learn about the holidays and connect Jewishly, particularly those Jews who would not be attending formal synagogue services anyway.
I read this article with great interest, and after thinking about it, there was one simple question that kept coming to mind, and that is, what's the big deal? I firmly believe that ANYTHING that gets Jews more involved in Jewish life is a positive thing, regardless of the location, shul or JCC. It's as simple as that! I have worked in Jewish educational and community organizations in several different cities for more than 15 years, and frankly, I found the attitudes of the Rabbis quoted in the article to be quite unprofessional and childish. While I understand fully that all synagogues/Rabbis are trying to do the best that they can to reach out to the community, (many are quite good at it), and that many shuls are having difficult times economically, the attitude displayed here is one of the reasons that a growing number of Jews, particularly younger families and individuals, are not joining a synagogue. Instead of worrying about "numbers" and "usurping authority", they should be concentrating on trying a bit harder to listen to and connect with the type of Jews that are going to alternative types of services and programs. I congratulate the JCC in Florida for stepping up and listening to them!
Hi, I live in Los Angeles and so do not know the Florida scene. As well I am biased, like most everyone else. That being said I grew up in a reform synagogue and with all due respoect, not a lot of Judaism was taught there. There are large conservative and reform synagoues in LA that do not get a lot of people and that are shrinking and getting older. It does sound like the reform and conservative synagosues in Florida should do a little more introspection as to why these individuals are choosing to go elsewhere, rather than trying to stifle their ability to do so. Joel Berman Los Angeles
I remember a cituation that occured years ago in northern New Jersey, where a Young Modern Orthodox Rabbi was connecting with the teenagers odf that town, that the Conservative Rabbi of a large congregation was angry that "his" kids were being drawn away. Sounds to me that if the JCC is helping unaffiliated Jews to continue to identify as Jews, the Synogogue Rabbi's should rejoice.
This article has clearly sparked a conversation about the need to engage more Jews in Jewish life, for which we are all grateful. Read Allan Finkelstein's blog post for a fuller explanation of his thoughts.
I am the demographer who did the study of the Jews of South Palm Beach County. 33% of the 73,000 South Palm Beach County Jewish households belong to a synagogue. I do not know where they get the 12% from.
I think that the Rabbis quoted in Stuart Ain's article highlight a point: the JCC, at least in our area, is searching for relevance in our people's lives and a reason for membership. This is ultimately about revenue to survive. The JCC charges membership just like a synagogue, but apparently people are not joining. JCC's in small Jewish communities may still be central locations where Jews "hang out", but in areas with larger Jewish populations, this is increasingly not the case. Our JCC has a pretty decent gym (I live in Boca), but Jews work out at much nicer health clubs. The JCC has a decent kosher cafe, but Jews choose to have coffee at Starbucks. They do not feel the need to have to go to a place to do secular things with Jews because they they live in Boca Raton where they do this everyday. My take on the situation is that we live in a free market society and the JCC has every right to do whatever they feel is necessary to see their organization survive. However, if they choose to be a synagogue and still receive communal dollars, than our synagogues should also receive dollars (or of course the opposite - no funding for anyone). The other thing I wanted to add is that this move may actually show that synagogues offer what people want: spiritual community, Jewish education, and a religious connection to our tradition. Synagogues have to continue to do what they do best and add outreach to our portfolios as well. This type of competition is a sign of things to come. Synagogues have to deal with the fact that they will lose people if others charge less for what people see as the same product even though they are lesser in quality. However, I do think that synagogues can be a Houses of study, prayer, and spiritual community better than any country club or JCC. The task is to show our people and hopefully turn the tide of apathy.
The majority of our coreligionists who do not join an established congregation are doing so for a good reason. Either, it is because they have not found the congregation of their liking or the right rabbi who would be capable of inspiring them. For many, it is because of the excessive cost of joining a synagogue or just attending the High Holiday services. Free services are offered by all Chabad congregations and a growing number of synagogues and centers everywhere. In Phoenix, AZ, the Jewish Fellowship has been offering free services for the past four years and hundreds of people have and will avail themselves of this opportunity. Rabbis and synagogues have no monopoly on the practice of the Jewish religion. We live in a free country and no Jewish person should be coerced to attend services in a synagogue that is only interested in selling tickets. When you call one of these synagogues, they are not interested in knowing who you are and what is on your mind, they are only interested in your money. This is quite unfortunate and contrary to the teachings of the Jewish religion. A fellow Jew from Phoenix, AZ
First of all good competition is a healthy thing. If the JCC is offering something that synagogues don't have then synagogues should try to lower their dues and find dynamic Rabbis to do outreach. If the Rabbis primary concern was that Jewish families in their communities should find ANY connection to the organized Jewish community- which is what they should care about - then they shouldn't cry that people chose something other than their synagogue with their dues... Secondly I don’t have too much sympathy for Conservative and Reform Rabbis as a single group of people they are more responsible in my opinion than any other group for the assimilation of American Jewry. Simply put the Conservative and Reform Rabbis of the past generation totally failed American Jewry. Where were they when under their noses Hebrew School kids would have a Bar and Bat Mitzvah and then sadly NOT be recruited to Jewish summer camps, youth groups or high school trips to Israel- so that they had nothing during their formative teen years. That was the biggest crime of the 20th century committed against American Jewry - and they didn't care that Jewish teens were disenfranchised. This is what led to the assimilation of American Jewry. The Rabbis only worried about their own salaries, sounding politically correct from the pulpit, bashing the Orthodox and making sure their retirement package would be significant for their retirement in Florida or whereever. Where was their concern for the million American Jewish children who finished Hebrew School over the past 50 years and remained detached from anything Jewish from age 13 to 18? Now watch the Conservative movement implode. By the way, when Synagogues wanted to start offering gyms and pools etc for its members under the failed initiative called STAR? (Synagogues, Transformation and Renewal) did the JCCs complain? No. So if the JCCs didn't complain when synagogues were considering offering services traditionally offered by JCCs why should synagogues complain about JCCs offering synagogue services? Conservative and Reform Rabbis should be happy that those families who didn’t find a place for themselves in their synagogues have found a niche in a Jewish environment elsewhere. That is if their real concern was for the Jewish People. But since they are really only concerned for themselves I am not surprised by their chuztpah. If their synagogues are lacking in some way- which they certainly are as Conservative membership is going down every single year and more than half of those who are members are over the age of 55- so they should concentrate on improving their own institutions and not on trying to close down alternative Jewish programming which is working just because it might take away some revenue from them!
You sound very "passionate" about this subject, but I think your "passion" or dare I say anger towards progressive Rabbis is a little misguided. Conservative Rabbis constantly push their congregants to send their children to Ramah camps and USY youth groups/summer programs. It is not their fault that families decide not to send their kids to these wonderful programs. In the end, each family is responsible for their own children, and this has an impact on our collective Jewish future. But let me ask you something, how does a watered-down high holiday service with no follow up serve to help "save" these Jewish families?
Why would you assume no follow-up? The goal of this type of outreach effort is all about greater connection amongst Jews and greater engagement of Jews in their broader Jewish Community and its institutions. Of couse there will be follow-up. That is one of the significant ways that this program will differ from the High Holiday programs that take place in country clubs and hotels that are attended by huge numbers of Jews. The goal of a program such is this is get people more engaged in Jewish Life, and not just a few days a year. That, by definition, will involve follow-up.
What a wonderful debate this has sparked. Synagogues fighting over who should welcome the unaffiliated. I hope the "war" rages on until all Jews find a welcoming and warm environment in which to worship.
Multiple use of facilities for services on high holidays makes a lot more sense than building too many structures, running too many separate appeals, and having too many people on the payrolls. Jewish Organizations engaging in turf battles waste fortunes of money that could otherwise be put to positive use within the community.
One minor error....the article states Boca as being in Broward County, but it is, in fact, in Palm Beach county. This should have been caught when quoting the CEO of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. The article presents a most interesting conflict. In the large picture, the JCC's efforts to engage more people (especially those who have been unaffiliated with a synagogue) is noteworthy; "turf wars" and the interests of the individual synagogues (all of whom are struggling to get new members) makes the smaller picture of their own goals the point of conflict.
The JCC in Charleston, SC has been giving space to a minyan for Shabbat and Chagim for a number of years, but I don't think it's ever been labeled as "JCC services" in any way.
I am concerned about the facts in this story since: 1) Rosh HaShanah begins on Wednesday night, not THURSDAY NIGHT, as your article states, and 2) Boca Raton is in Palm Beach county, not BROWARD COUNTY, as your article states. Fact checking, anyone?
The article does state Rosh Hashana begins Wednesday night. The original commenter is obviously correct that Boca Raton is located in Palm Beach Cty, not Broward, but perhaps the writer will resolve this Rosh Hashana to work on not offering snide remarks that too could be found in error. (are we not only humble before G-d?)

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