By: Marisa Herman Associate Editor
Two organizations dedicated to helping the local Jewish community are celebrating 40 years of service this year.
Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County and Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services, the first beneficiary agency of the Federation, have spent the last four decades providing essential services and advocating for the Jewish community.
“It’s the hub of Jewish life,” Federation President and CEO Matt Levin said. “We touch on every fabric of Jewish life.”
From the Jacobson Food Pantry, which feeds more than 500 families, to JARC, which provides housing and work opportunities for adults with special needs, the services fulfill all types of needs from cradle to grave.
All the work is done from the largest Federation campus in the country that sprawls over 100 acres in West Boca and several other off-site properties. But it took years before the village of Jewish life was created.
“We started with basically nothing,” South Palm Beach County Federation founder Al Gortz said. “Nobody dreamed of this.”
There used to be one Federation for the entire county based in West Palm Beach. In the early 70s, South Palm Beach County only had one synagogue. A satellite office of the Federation was located in downtown Boca with one employee.
But by the mid-70s, the population began to grow and early founders like Gortz said there was a need to bring more of a presence closer to home. The schlep to West Palm Beach was far and more and more families were beginning to move to Boca.
A contentious meeting to separate from the one county Federation took place in the fall of 1979. Early founders celebrated a winning vote at a Howard Johnson’s off Interstate-95 and Okeechobee Boulevard with coffee, tea and pumpkin pie, Gortz said.
On Nov. 1, 1979, the new organization was filed with the Secretary of State. Immediately, the early members got to work and raised $900,00 in the next year to help fund Jewish Family Service and The South County Jewish Day School housed in Temple Beth El.
“Until 1984, we were laser focused on serving the needs of the community as needs came up,” Gortz said.
When the day school needed money to stay open, Federation stepped in.
It wasn’t until 1984 that Federation had its first free-standing home a six acre campus on Spanish River Boulevard named after original Federation founder Jimmy Baer.
The Federation then began to build economic growth. Levin said it was the wild west for philanthropy. Snow birds were beginning to adopt South Palm Beach County as their home and wanted to help support it as they had the Federation they grew up with up north.
Money was being donated to support the need for various services in the Jewish community.
Not long after, the Federation outgrew its space. Roy Flack, Stanley Katz and Richard Siemens donated 20 acres of land west of Boca Raton to the Federation. Additional acreage was added over time.
In 1991, the new Richard & Carole Siemens Campus totaling 28-acres was opened before 15,000 people. It housed the Federation and its agencies: Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service, Levis Jewish Community Center (JCC), Donna Klein Jewish Academy and Jewish Association for Residential Care (JARC.) An additional 55 acres north of the campus was acquired by the Federation in 1995.
Gortz said the success is due to taking risks over the years.
“We tried things that failed,” he said. “We were able to take risks, be creative and not afraid to fail.”
Currently, Federation supports more than 70 agencies financially. It continues to raise money in an annual campaign to make sure there is always money to help members of Jewish community from pre-schoolers to seniors.
It is the challenging times where Federation’s thrive, Levin said. When hurricanes hit and volunteers are immediately assembled to help the elderly or travesties like the shooting in the synagogue in Pittsburgh take place and the community rallies condemning Anti-Semitism, are examples of when Federations know how to act.
“These are the times Federations are built for,” Levin said. “It is what an organized Jewish community is about.”