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.”