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Palm Beach County

PALM BEACH COUNTY, carved out of Dade County in 1909, was comprised in 2005 of 37 cities and more than 45 miles of shoreline along Florida's Gold Coast. It is one of the two largest of Florida's 67 counties in land area.

The first southern Florida (except Key West) community to host Jews was probably West Palm Beach, where Jews settled by 1893 when the railway that was coming down Florida's east coast arrived there. Russian Jewish immigrants Isidor Cohen, Jake Schneidman, and Julius Frank opened retail stores on Narcissus and Clematis Streets, which were close to the ferry that brought shoppers from Palm Beach. Max Serkin was a produce broker. Of these, only Serkin remained; the others followed the railway to Miami when it was extended there in 1896. The Serkin's daughter, Jeanette, born in 1896, is the first known Jewish child born in the county. By 1912 Max Greenberg left Daytona Beach to open Pioneer Hardware in Lucerne (later Lake Worth). The Joseph Schupler family opened a hat store in West Palm Beach in 1915, joining Joseph Mendel, a cigar manufacturer, the Cohen's Riviera Citrus Packing Company, and Shrebnick clothing for a total of about six Jewish families in the area. The Dickson brothers, a carpenter and a plasterer, settled in 1919. In 1923 the Jewish Cemetery Association was established to purchase lots in Woodlawn Cemetery, and Temple Beth Israel (later named Temple Israel) was founded. Joseph Mendel, serving as mayor of West Palm Beach at the time, was instrumental in forming the congregation, and Max Serkin was the first president. The next year the Jewish Junior League was created for social activity. By 1926 there was a second congregation, Beth El. Jewish merchants continued to settle, among them Myers Luggage and Cy Argintar's Men's Shop, as well as professionals, including dentist Dr. Blicher and lawyer Joe Lesser. Meanwhile on Palm Beach, wealthy Jews Henry Morgenthau, Mortimer Schiff, the Seligmans, Springolds, and Florenz Zeigfield had homes. A major hurricane hit in 1928 and many merchants lost their merchandise. The next year, the land bubble burst. Pioneer Virginia Argintar recalled, "One day I was riding in a limousine; the next, I waited for the bus." Dr. Carl Herman, an avid anti-Zionist, served Temple Israel for 17 years. Kosher boarding houses opened in Palm Beach. Growth was slow at first; as late as 1940, the Jewish population in Palm Beach County was only 1,000.

Harry and Florence Brown from St. Louis were the first Jews to settle in Boca Raton in 1931 at a time when it was still possible to sit in the middle of Old Dixie Highway and play cards! In 1936, Harry's sister, Nettie, arrived with her husband Max Hutkin, a Polish immigrant. They opened Hutkin's Food Market. Max was the founding president of Temple Beth El (1967), the first Jewish congregation in Boca Raton. Today, with a membership of 2,000 families, it is one of the largest Reform congregations in the nation.

In 1932 Sam Schutzer established a Jewish newspaper, Our Voice, which he published for 43 years, finally merging with the Jewish Floridian in 1975. In 1936 the Persoff family moved to Delray Beach to work in a jewelry store in the "art" colony. Carl Altman formed the Lake Worth Benevolent Association in 1939 to assist Jews in difficulties. During the war years of the 1940s, seders and Sabbath services were held for Jewish naval and air personnel in the area. In 1946 Lake Worth Hebrew Association was founded, which became Temple Beth Sholom in 1953. In 1960 when President John Kennedy began to come to Palm Beach, Jewish physician Dr. Rotter was on call. The first co-op was built, inviting "snowbirds" to purchase instead of rent apartments for the season. The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County started in 1962, the List family donated land for Camp Shalom in West Palm Beach, and Temple Emanu-El was founded in a Palm Beach storefront.

Shopping malls and air-conditioning have changed the shape of local businesses. More recent entrepreneurs include Irwin Levy, Robert Rapaport, and Aaron Schecter, who began developing Century Village in 1967. Century Village attracted large numbers of retired garment workers and teachers, often from New York and other northeastern states. These "cities within cities" provide a wide range of educational, recreational, and entertainment activities. Temple Anshei Sholom was founded in 1971 on land adjacent to Century Village. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kings Point retirement community became successful in Delray Beach and its environs, and numerous golf club communities followed the trend. The "rush" of Jewish settlement accelerated. In and around these communities, more congregations were established. In 1973 the Jewish Community Day School was started by Rabbis Irving Cohen, William H. Shapiro, and Hyman Fishman, with Ann Leibovitz and Carol Roberts, who later served as mayor of West Palm Beach. The next year (1974) the Jewish Community Center of the Palm Beaches was founded. In 1975 the Federation established a branch office in Boca Raton. Four years later the South County Jewish Federation was formed; the campus today sits on 50 acres of land. Rabbi Bruce Warshal was the professional, working with Helene Eichler, and James Baer the founding president. By 1980 the Jewish population was more than 100,000. Palm Beach Jewish World, later purchased by Jewish Media Group of Miami, was established by Robert D. Rapaport, who also founded the Jewish Arts Foundation in 1987. That year there were 31 congregations serving 150,000 families.

Of the 1.2 million people who live in Palm Beach County (2005), about 238,000 are Jews, making this the second largest Jewish population in the state (after Broward County). Many have moved north from Miami-Dade County. The Boca Raton (south county) metropolitan area is more than 50% Jewish, with 20 congregations, a JCC on land donated by Richard Siemans and, since 1982, a Jewish day school. Ninety-eight percent of the Jews were born elsewhere in the U.S., most are seniors, and the mayor of Boca Raton since 2001, Steven L. Abrams, is Jewish. Elected to the U.S. Congress in 1996, Robert Wexler of Boca Raton was a senior member of the House International Relations Committee. Serving as chief justice of Florida's Supreme Court was Barbara Pariente of West Palm Beach, only the second woman appointed to the court in 1997. In the West Palm Beach area (north county) there are 29 congregations and 18 Jewish educational institutions, including a 7.5-acre Day School K-8. The Orthodox community is the largest segment with 12 of the congregations. The JCC of Greater Palm Beaches has two campuses (in West Palm Beach on land donated by Robert Rapaport, and in Boynton), and the Morse Geriatric Center with 280 beds opened in 1983. As the Jewish community grew, so did incidents of antisemitism. This waned as the Jewish organizations established a more solid base. Until today Jews play prominent roles in all areas of the general community, including politics. Continuing growth for the Jewish community is a prediction for the future in Palm Beach County.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.