By Charles Passy, via Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Following studies that have shown Palm Beach County’s Jewish population is shifting from West Palm Beach to points north, south and west, the Jewish Community Center of the Greater Palm Beaches is undergoing the most significant transformation in its 35-year history.
Gone is the idea of a central-location model — and largely gone is the center’s West Palm Beach campus, which ceased most of its cultural and family activities this year.
Instead, the “J,” as the institution is commonly called, is opening a Palm Beach Gardens campus this month, expanding programming and facilities at a suburban Boynton Beach campus and continuing to offer events and activities in various locations in Wellington.
“We’re trying to meet our mission of offering programs close to where people live,” said Mindy Hanken, a center executive who will direct the new 5,400-square-foot Palm Beach Gardens campus, dubbed “JCC North,” situated in the Midtown shopping and dining complex.
Meanwhile, at the Boynton-area JCC campus, which has been renamed the Lore and Eric F. Ross JCC in honor of a recent $2 million gift from the Jewish philanthropists’ estate, the focus is on taking a bustling 50,000-square-foot center and finding room to fit in more, including a new lifelong-learning program for seniors.
And though the Wellington campus has been without a home since the recent expiration of a three-year lease on a storefront space, JCC officials have worked out a deal to partner with three synagogues to offer many programs.
The Kaplan JCC near West Palm Beach is still being used for a preschool program but hardly anything else. JCC officials say they had little choice but to close the gym and meeting facilities as membership dropped from as many as 3,500 households in the 1990s to fewer than 1,000 in the past year.
Such stats fall in line with population patterns. In the ’70s, when Jewish retirees first flocked in significant numbers to Palm Beach County, they chose to live in West Palm Beach’s booming senior communities such as Century Village.
But in the past decade, retirees have looked instead to Boynton Beach, where several newer communities with contemporary amenities have opened. Wellington and Palm Beach Gardens have become home to large numbers of Jewish families, many the offspring of those retirees. Just a few years ago, Palm Beach Gardens supported a single synagogue. Now it has three, plus a kosher delicatessen.
The county’s Jewish community of about 250,000, the fourth-largest in the country, has no true center, but instead several hubs. So the JCC, which operates on a $9 million annual budget, has gone where the community has gone, adopting a multi-campus approach that has worked in other U.S. Jewish communities.
“Chicago is based on the same model. And so is Atlanta,” said Craig Frustaci, the county JCC’s assistant executive director. Still, the Palm Beach County JCC isn’t saying its multi-campus strategy is a sure bet. For that reason, JCC officials decided to open a much smaller space in Palm Beach Gardens, finding a willing partner in Midtown. (The development was built during the boom years of the past decade, but has recently looked for ways to drive traffic to its shops and restaurants.)
Instead of the full-scale gym found at the suburban Boynton campus, JCC North has what amounts to a small, private one for use by clients who exercise with personal trainers. And for some of its after-school programs and cultural events, JCC North will use spaces at nearby Mirasol Park and the Borland Center, a church and performance space.
JCC Executive Director Michelle Wasch Lobovits considers JCC North an “interim step,” leaving open the possibility that if the new campus proves popular, it could lead to a larger facility.
“We have the opportunity to create the groundswell before there’s actually a building,” she said.
But even if that new building does come about, it may not rival what the Kaplan JCC was in its heyday. The local Jewish community has matured to the point that it’s simply too spread out for one center to dominate.
“We’re a JCC without walls,” Lobovits said.
The JCC campuses:
Suburban Boynton Beach (Lore and Eric F. Ross JCC)
Membership: 2,500 households.
Facilities: A 50,000-square-foot space with gym and preschool, plus room for educational, cultural and other programs for older children, families and seniors.
Info: 8500 Jog Road, (561) 740-9000
Membership: There is no full-scale membership program — individual events and activities are priced accordingly.
Facilities: No central facility — it partners with three synagogues.
Info: (561) 253-6030
Palm Beach Gardens (JCC North)
Opens: This month.
Membership: There is no full-scale membership program, but a ‘Friend of the J’ program offers discounts on classes and other activities, plus savings at local shops and restaurants.
Facilities: A 5,400-square-foot space with a small, private gym and room for classes and other programs. JCC North also will use spaces at a local park and church/cultural center.
Info: 4803 PGA Blvd. (in Midtown), (561) 689-7700