Like many other communities across the United States, South Florida struggles with the challenge of declining synagogue affiliation rates. Like communities in the Northeast or Midwest, we too struggle with those who fail to mind meaning, value, or inspiration in synagogue life. At the same time, however, with our more mature community, we also encounter challenges other congregations do not face, or do not face in the same degree. Many people who move to South Florida feel like transplants, and thus do not have two, three, or even four or more generations’ worth of loyalty to a particular congregation. There is powerful allure to sitting in a pew that was once occupied by one’s great-grandparents. Moreover, there is also a generalized feeling of fatigue among many South Florida retirees. By my estimation there must be at least 10,000 synagogue buildings in the Northeastern United States, since almost every potential new congregant I meet opens by telling me, “Rabbi… I built four synagogue buildings up-North.” So many older people in my community feel as if they have done their part and now it is someone else’s turn.
South Florida is a haven for those who spent their lives working toward the success that they are now richly enjoying. No one should deny them the fruits of their labors, or try to convince them that they should not spend their time as they see fit. And, contrary to what many may not realize about South Florida, there is plenty to do. Within a five-mile radius of my congregation there are dozens of golf courses (public and private), a wide variety of country clubs and tennis clubs. Boynton Beach and its environs are made up of gated communities, each of which offers it’s own avenues for socializing. There are card games and chorale groups; if people want to play bridge, poker, pan, mahjongg, or billiards, no doubt they can find like minded individuals in their community who want to do the same thing. One congregant once described his community to me by saying, “It’s like Adult Summer Camp, all day, every day.” Others have told me that they have never been so busy in all of their lives.
Behind it all, and beneath it all, lurking below the surface is an awareness of the fleeting of time. Serving an adult population means that I perform many funerals. Minyan groups, and Shiva teams, are also a part of the landscape of the gated community. Though people are loathe to talk openly about it, there is some truth to the old comedian’s joke that Florida is “God’s Waiting Room.”
My experiences with the people in this community have lead me to take a rather unconventional approach. Often when I speak to people about congregational life, I ask them flat out, “Did you come to Florida to die?” More often than not, the shocked response is, “Rabbi! Of course not! I came to Florida to live.” Okay, then let me let you in on something important. Golf is nice. Tennis is nice. Bridge is nice. But those are things you do while you are alive, they are not living. Being part of a community, helping to nurture and grow a synagogue, that’s living. Grappling with the age old mysteries of time and space, that’s living. Working to perpetuate our tradition to the next generation, another key focus of the community I serve, that’s living.
Make no mistake, there is a hunger out there. Not everyone can name it, not everyone can describe, but among the people that I am fortunate enough to serve, there is a hunger to reach out and connect to something bigger and grander than ourselves. Perhaps this is because we are all aging, and as we age we tend to become more spiritually inclined. Maybe it is because the essential questions at the heart of life are so often deferred in favor of the more immediate needs of caring for one’s family. Now with free time, there are opportunities to discuss philosophy and ethics. Now along with free time, for golf or tennis, or lounging by the pool, there is time for study and introspection.
Jewish leaders need to respond to this hunger. Synagogue leaders need to try to demonstrate to our constituencies, or potential constituencies, that what they are looking for is here. We need to let our congregants know that the synagogue exists now for the reasons it has always existed. Here is a place to find answers. Or, if not to find answers, at least to find others who are searching. The time is now.