The Boynton Boom
Staff Writer
Eight years ago, when Rabbi Anthony Fratello  became the spiritual leader of Temple Shaarei Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Boynton Beach, the congregation had 100 households — and the youngest member was 75. Since then, its membership has grown six fold, 250 children have enrolled in the religious school and the congregation is almost doubling its 10,000-square-foot building. “We are now truly a multigenerational congregation, and we are getting younger and younger,” Rabbi Fratello said. “There has been a lot of growth. Boynton Beach has exploded.” There were almost no Jews in Boynton Beach in 1975, but by 1987 there were 9,300. That figure swelled in 1999 to 37,000 and by 2005 had grown to 59,000, according to Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami’s Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies. By comparison, he said, in all of St. Louis there are 54,000 Jews. “This clearly has to be the fastest-growing Jewish community in the United States,” Sheskin said. “In less than two decades, it has added 50,000 Jews.” The growth here has come at the expense of West Palm Beach, about 25 minutes to the north, where the Jewish community in 1985 erected a major 93,000-square-foot community center on a multi-million dollar 40-acre campus. From 25,000 Jews in central Palm Beach County in 1987, the number of Jews there fell to 13,000 by 1999 and to 11,400 by 2005, Sheskin noted. But even as the West Palm Beach campus was going up, many communal leaders recognized that Boynton Beach was the area of Jewish growth, and as a result a satellite JCC was built here in 1998 on the 12-acre campus of  Temple Torah, a Conservative congregation. The JCC, known as the Boynton/Lake Worth branch, uses 10 of those acres. “We built a large branch here, but it was too small the day it opened,” said Scott Benarde, a JCC spokesman. As a result, the building was expanded just two years later to 53,000-square-feet, noted Craig Frustaci, the JCC’s assistant executive director. Among the changes was the addition of a large physical fitness center, despite the fact that most people here live in gated communities that have their own health clubs. “We found that some people don’t want to work out with their neighbors and family,” Frustaci said, adding that some members use the room more for socializing than working out. He pointed to four senior citizens in animated conversation in the middle of the floor, two of them sitting on exercise machines. Frustaci said that because there are no kosher eateries “within walking distance” — there is none in all of Boynton Beach — the JCC would like to open a café on the premises within the next year. The JCC uses 86 percent of its building, which also features an Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool, a social hall that seats 200 and a 6,000-square-foot gym. The rest is used by the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, an adult day care group, the Commission on Jewish Education and the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County. Jeff  Trynz, the JCC’s marketing director, said the JCC here has 2,500 members compared with 1,800 in West Palm Beach and that its goal is to expand services by “getting into the community and partnering with synagogues and universities.” “They don’t all have to come here,” he said. But Sheskin noted that only 15 percent of Jews in Palm Beach County have joined synagogues. Evidence of a growing number of young Jewish families in Boynton Beach is the fact that the JCC has its own 220-student preschool program, that Temple Torah has a preschool for 150 youngsters and that Chabad-Lubavitch of Greater Boynton, about three miles away, opened last year a preschool program for 60 children. All three programs are filled to capacity, according to officials at the three institutions. Recognizing the changing demographics here, the Solomon Schechter School of South Palm Beach County moved in August to Temple Torah from east Boca Raton, where it had opened in a synagogue in 2000. It is the only Jewish day school here. “We had as many as 42 students but the demographics were not good for us because younger families were moving west,” said Allison Oakes, the head of school. She said she hopes the three preschools will act as “feeders for us.” The K-5 school now has 22 youngsters. “My kindergarten is full for next year, and we are building our next kindergarten class now,” Oakes pointed out, noting that there are 15 students per class and that she has room for four kindergarten classes. “Our projected growth is quick,” she said. “Every year we expect to add one more kindergarten, and in four or five years we are looking at 90 students” through the eighth grade. Shelly Gross, president of the school’s board of directors, said she hoped that her school and the Meyer Community Day School in West Palm Beach, another Jewish school, would graduate enough students to warrant the building of a Jewish high school. “We have room here for 120 children,” Gross said as she walked through the halls of her school, located on the newly built second floor of  Temple Torah. “And there’s more room to build here.” Mitch Turk, principal of  Temple Torah’s religious school, said he has 90 students and that his school started only four years ago after his congregation outgrew a regional religious school. But although young Jewish families have begun moving here, Rabbi Fratello said builders are still putting up developments for active senior citizens in addition to those for young families. Thus, Boynton Beach is getting younger — but slowly. Sheskin said a 2005 study found that 74 percent of Boynton Beach is made up of Jews aged 65 and older. And of the 59,000 Jews here, only 3 percent are younger than 18 — compared with 26 percent nationally. Howard Teplitz, executive director of Temple Torah, said that although his congregation has added a religious school and a preschool program to attract younger families, “the bulk of the people moving here are retirees or snowbirds for whom this is their second home. The homes here are affordable — Boca is too expensive — and you can’t beat the weather. ... Boynton Beach historically has not attracted young people. It’s changing slightly, but I don’t see an influx of young people at this point in time.” On the other hand, Rabbi Sholom Ciment, spiritual leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, said that in the last three years “we have experienced an influx of whole developments filled with young people. Our preschool has a capacity for 60 children and what is unheard of in preschool development is that it should be filled to capacity in its first year. And there is now a waiting list for children to come into our preschool.” As a result of this growth, Rabbi Ciment said his congregation bought another 2.5 acres adjacent to its property and plans to “build another 15 classrooms.” “We want to build the infrastructure for what we expect to be a greater and greater influx of young Jewish families into the a    rea,” he said, adding that his catchment area includes Boynton Beach and several communities to the north that encompass 86,000 Jews. “In three years we are going to have a facility of 50,000-square-feet on five acres of land,” Rabbi Ciment added. The push for young families here has not been easy. Shari Young, 48, director of  Temple Torah’s Early Childhood Learning Center, said that when she moved to Boynton Beach in 1985 from the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn, she was single and “looking for a slower pace.” She found it all right, because most of the Jews here were senior citizens. “I sat on a strategic planning committee for the Jewish federation and put together the first Mommy and Me program at a day care center whose owners were Jewish,” she said. It attracted some of the young Jewish families who were just beginning to move here from New York after the devastation in southern Florida caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Young married a year after she arrived. “My goal was to have a Jewish infrastructure so that people would feel there was a Jewish lifestyle they could become involved with here,” Young said. “We still need a kosher restaurant and a kosher butcher.” Penina Polokoff-Zakarin, 39, who recently moved here from Brooklyn with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, said she has been in touch with people who are interested in opening a kosher restaurant and a kosher butcher shop. “We have to find the property and start it up,” she said. “It will be real New York.” Polokoff-Zakarin said her family is renting an apartment here for a year to “see if we like it and to let [home] prices come down” before they buy. “It’s definitely a better quality of life here,” she said as she sat on a bench at Temple Torah. “My favorite thing is all of the parking and no meters or alternate side of the street parking.” And she said housing prices are much lower here. In Brooklyn, she was paying $1,280 a month for a 700-square-foot apartment. Here, she said, she is paying $1,250 a month for a 1,536-square-foot three-bedroom unit with a private terrace. And, she said, two- and three-bedroom condos “in luxurious areas” that had sold for $350,000 to $400,000 are now selling for less than $250,000. Glenn Peleg of Realty Associates in Boca Raton said housing prices have been on the decline for nearly three years, with one study saying they have dropped 21 percent. He said that houses that had been in the low $300,000 range have dropped about $100,000. Asked to compare the value of a home here with one in the New York City, Peleg said he believed a $2 million home in the city would sell for $500,000 here. “You get a lot more bang for the buck,” he said. “One million dollars here buys you a palace. ... I recently sold a young couple a five-bedroom home in a gated community for $287,000 in Lake Worth,” just to the north of here.