Rabbi Anthony Fratello Guest Post: A Young(ish) Rabbi in a Senior World

Rabbi Anthony Fratello of Temple Shaarei Shalom, Boynton Beach, FL.
Rabbi Anthony Fratello of Temple Shaarei Shalom, Boynton Beach, FL.

Editor’s Note: Joining the Jewish Sacred Aging contributor network this week is Rabbi Anthony Fratello, senior rabbi since 2000 at Temple Shaarei Shalom, in Boynton Beach, FL.

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.

Rabbi Anthony Fratello
Rabbi Anthony Fratello

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.

About Rabbi Anthony Fratello 1 Article
Anthony Fratello was born in 1972 in Long Beach CA. In his childhood, Anthony was a member of Temple Beth David, a Reform congregation in Westminster, CA, and was active in BBYO (The B'nai Brith Youth Organization). Rabbi Fratello graduated from Pomona College in 1994, with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History, and in the summer of 1994, began his studies toward the Rabbinate at the Jerusalem Campus of the Hebrew Union College (HUC-JIR). He returned to the United States to continue his studies at the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR in 1995. While in seminary, Rabbi Fratello served pulpits in Mississippi, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as a Summer Residency at Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland. While serving these congregations, he had the honor of teaching and praying with Jews from all age groups, movements, and walks of life. Rabbi Fratello earned his MAHL Degree (Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters) from the Hebrew Union College in 1998, and was Ordained as a Rabbi in June 1999. In April of 2000, Rabbi Fratello was elected to the pulpit of Temple Shaarei Shalom, in Boynton Beach. Over the last 14 years, the congregation has grown to over 550 families, and has almost 300 children in its religious school programs. Rabbi Fratello served as President and Treasurer of the Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis, and also served as a board member of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, the Mandel Jewish Community Centers of the Palm Beaches, and is currently on the board of the Friedman Commission for Jewish Education. Rabbi Fratello has written extensively for a variety of publications, and is a popular and sought after speaker. Rabbi Fratello is married to his Hebrew Union College Classmate, Rabbi Joanna Tract. Rabbi Tract serves as Jewish Chaplain at JFK Hospital in Lantana, FL, and Spiritual Care Coordinator at Palms West Hospital in Wellington, FL. The couple have been blessed with two sons, Samson and Eli.

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