CELEBRATING 40 YEARS!
Remarks by Al Gortz at the 2019 Annual Meeting
Let me take you back for a moment to south Palm Beach County in the mid-1970s.
Imagine you just lost your job and your young Jewish family is having a frightening financial emergency. You don’t know where to turn.
Imagine you’re newly retired and just moved here. You’re ready to contribute to your new Jewish community, but no one seems to know how to get involved here.
These are real stories of late 1970s newcomers to South Palm Beach County, where there was no system in place other than a few synagogues for Jews to look for help in times of need, and no infrastructure for those who wanted to donate their time and dollars to meet those needs.
So how did we get here, in our 40th year, as one of North America’s leading federations? In this remarkable, cohesive Jewish community, on the largest Jewish campus in the country?
I consider myself one of the privileged few to have been there at the founding of our Federation. There is simply no way to do justice to our full 40-year history and everyone to whom we owe a phenomenal debt of gratitude. So let’s reflect on just a few defining highlights.
As a young professional who arrived here in 1977, I joined a small group of local residents concerned with the increasing need for Jewish programs and services that were simply unavailable here.
Led by Jimmy Baer, a visionary businessman, a natural leader, and who I will call the moses of our Federation, we tried being a division of the Federation in Palm Beach. But our Jewish population was growing, and it was becoming clear that we were a separate community, and we had to move on.
I remember the day in December, 1978, that I personally knew we were ready to break away. I was speaking as south county chair of the Palm Beach Federation’s JCRC on behalf of Soviet Jewry, at a rally on the steps of Boca Raton City Hall. Looking out at close to 400 local Jews and dignitaries assembled, who would not have traveled to West Palm Beach for such an event, I knew we were our own community.
Others reached the same conclusion. The next year, a group of local Jewish leaders voted unanimously, at a meeting, to separate from the Palm Beach Federation.
Our Jewish population was around 15,000, only about a tenth of our current number, and our leadership could fit around a kitchen table. But we were ready to set out on this journey. So we negotiated an amicable parting from Palm Beach, and in return for our agreement not to use the words Palm Beach in our name for a few years, we were given the seed money necessary to get started.
And so, in October 1979, around a conference table in my law office, a few of us signed the legal documents to form what was then known as the South County Jewish Federation.
With an incredible sense of excitement and commitment, we got right to work. Starting with two employees in a tiny east Boca office on Northwest 2nd Avenue, we had no idea we were laying the groundwork for the infrastructure of one of the largest and leading Jewish communities in North America.
Jimmy Baer became our first president. He and our first Executive Director, Rabbi Bruce Warshal, formed a dynamic, effective leadership team that modeled the close lay/professional partnership that is so much a part of our success today. Our first campaign raised about $1 million, approximately twice as much as we were able to raise in the prior year as the division of the Palm Beach Federation.
We were laser-focused on serving the needs of our burgeoning Jewish community, creating agencies, departments, and services. Our women’s division was up and running even before we formed our own Federation, and they’ve never stopped.
Our first agency, now called Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services, started with one part-time social worker. The fledgling Boca Raton Jewish Community Day School, now Donna Klein Jewish Academy, was second, followed by the Adolph and Rose Levis JCC, and then JARC.
Fast forward five years to 1984. The Federation had its hands full trying to meet the needs of our Jewish neighbors, who were moving here at an exponential rate. But even then we were planning for the future.
It was hard to get people to think long range, but we knew the importance of securing permanent endowments for our future. So we started what is now our Jacobson Jewish Community Foundation, with its first Executive Vice President, Arthur Jaffe. That first year, three major endowments including one from Al Levis gave our foundation instant credibility.
That same year, 1984, at our first campus on Spanish River Road in east Boca, which was named in honor of Jimmy and Margie Baer.
At the same time, we were already planning this campus where we sit tonight. We had asked developer Dick Siemens for five to ten acres near where he was building the Polo Club. He told us we needed 20 to 30 acres, and to go west where he was developing the West Boca Medical Center. It was just farmland, but Dick convinced us this was the right move. He and his partners gave us 23 acres, and we added five more.
15,000 visitors packed the grand opening of the Richard & Carole Siemens Campus when it became the new home of the Federation and its agencies in 1991. We were serving a Jewish community that had quickly climbed to 90,000 people and the growth wasn’t slowing down.
As if our Federation wasn’t busy enough opening the new campus, that same year we also took about 500 people from across our Jewish community on mission 500 to Israel - 60% of whom had never before been to our homeland.
It was an exciting time of growth, accomplishment and possibilities. We could feel our Jewish community coming together not only on that mission, but in so many activities on our new campus. Looking back, we were laying the groundwork for the cohesion and unity through which we thrive today.
Trying to keep up with the population, we bought more land and broke ground on the North Campus in 1998, and just kept going.
So here we are today, with our now independent original agencies, two HUD housing projects, the state-of-the-art Sinai Residences, two K through 12 day schools and more on these amazing 100 acres, where 1,500 students learn, more than 700 people reside, and the occupants of 3,500 vehicles join us every day.
And we’ve built a Federation that impacts not only our local community, but also, with our international partners, reaches our Jewish family in Israel and across the globe.
Together, we have accomplished all of this in less than two generations! Yet, if our history has taught us anything, it has taught us that there will always be challenges ahead. Each generation will face what I choose to call an era of possibilities.
Looking back at our 40 years, and around this room, I see just what a caring Jewish community is supposed to look like. I see the leadership, the generosity and investment, the partnerships and unity it takes. I see what our founders dreamed would fulfill our mission of caring for the vulnerable and building community for generations to come.
Thanks to all of you for doing your part.
May we continue to go from strength to strength.