Md. rabbis hold fast to Fla. retirees

With Jewish population aging, leaders visit, work to maintain far-flung congregations


BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. -- Eddie and Ellen Goldberg moved from Baltimore 12 years ago. Aaron and Rosalie Friedmann left just a few months ago. But both couples have maintained their memberships at Beth El Congregation in Park Heights. And neither would have missed the chance yesterday to visit here with Rabbi Mark Loeb.

"I want to welcome you to the southern extension of Beth El," said host Arnold Feldman, drawing laughter from the crowd of about 100 gathered in a banquet room. Then he said the Motzi, the Hebrew blessing over the bread, and these longtime members - some of them now retired to Florida, others just wintering here - began the joyful business of catching up with their synagogue and with one another.

Faced with an aging and increasingly scattered population, Baltimore's largest Jewish congregations are going to ever-greater lengths to maintain connections with their members.

Loeb, the longtime spiritual leader at Beth El, is one of the growing number of local rabbis who now circle a date about this time each year to visit with the hundreds of members who live or winter in the Sunshine State. They hold services, share Shabbat dinner or simply break bread together, in the hope of nurturing ties increasingly stretched by time and distance.

"We realize that the Jewish community is changing, and changing a great deal," said Rabbi Steven M. Fink. The senior rabbi at Temple Oheb Shalom presided over a Shabbat dinner for 25 members of his congregation last month at the Florida home of Stewart and Marlene Greenebaum.

"A number of our members are retiring earlier than we used to or are creating jobs for themselves where they can work out of their homes, which can be in Florida," Fink said. "So it's really incumbent upon us to reach out to them, to tell them that we care about them, that their ties with us are strong, so we can maintain their membership."

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter has been visiting Florida annually since arriving at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation a decade ago. He'll take this year's trip later this month.

"It came about really as a pragmatic response to an emerging potential problem as our community was aging and more were spending significant periods of time away, and recognizing that you can't take connection for granted," he said.

The outreach represents an attempt to meet the needs of a community that is aging more rapidly than the general population. Nineteen percent of American Jews are 65 or older, as compared with 12 percent of all Americans, according to estimates from the 2000 census.

"We only have slightly better longevity, but we are not replacing ourselves in terms of population," said Rabbi Dayle Friedman, director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.

"That means that as there are ever more people living longer, they are a bigger proportion of our community," she said. "The fastest-growing group in the Jewish community is over 75."

Jewish communal organizations, such as The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, have long held winter meetings in Florida. But Friedman had not heard of congregations gathering here.

"They have come to consider their congregations to have less of a geographical focus and see more of a community wherever those people happen to be," she said. "I would think with technology, there will be more and more ways of connecting."

Loeb is used to seeing members of his congregation far from home. He has trekked to Philadelphia, New York and London to catch up with students away at college, and makes a point of getting together with far-flung "Beth El people" during other travels.

"These are families of our congregation who are with us for all of the sacred occasions of their lives," he said. "They're our people, and when they're not with us, we want them to know that we still care about them. If anything, we should do more of this."

The sun shone yesterday in Boynton Beach, a city north of Fort Lauderdale. A light breeze riffled swaying palm trees. Inside the banquet room of a golf club here, congregation President Rich Hollander described developments at Beth El, including plans for the religious school and discussions about an outdoor chapel and a day school. The members dined together, and Loeb delivered a talk on Thomas L. Friedman's The World Is Flat that touched on globalization, international economic interdependence and terrorism.

Rosalie Friedmann, who spends four months of the year in Lake Worth, Fla., described the gathering as a reunion. "This is an unusual opportunity to get together, because some people have come from Naples, some people have come from Miami," she said. "We love the congregation."

Eddie Goldberg, an obstetrician and gynecologist, left Baltimore in 1994, when he moved from Johns Hopkins to the University of Michigan. But he never gave up his membership in Beth El.

"I just feel part of the congregation. It's home," said Goldberg, who has settled in Lake Worth.

"I just can't break the tie. And I wouldn't want to."

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