I was wandering around the sanctuary of a conservative synagogue in Palm Beach, Florida with my three-year-old daughter, Claire, in tow. My husband’s family had longstanding ties to the synagogue (my husband had been the first bar mitzvah) and when we moved back to Palm Beach after law school, we began to attend.
Being raised in Boro Park, Brooklyn, I had been used to a more intense Judaism. I had lived across the street from one the most beautiful synagogues in the New York area, Temple Beth-El. The cantor was Moshe Koussevitzky. His powerful voice filled the room, rising above the women’s balconies to the sculpted ceiling. On Shabbat and Yomim Tovim, the streets of Boro Park were filled with hundreds (if not thousands) of people “shpatzeiring,” strolling in their holiday finery. It was a warm and comforting place in which to grow up.
But Palm Beach was not Boro Park. In fact, Palm Beach had a well-known history of discrimination in the not-too-distant past.
Upon moving to Florida, I experienced anti-Semitism for the first time in my life. I had gone from a vibrant Jewish community to a dark unknown world.
For many years, I longed for bit of Yiddishkeit.
Then, that day in the conservative synagogue, I heard that “there is a rabbi in the basement.”
Basement? The synagogue didn’t have a basement. Very few structures in south Florida had basements the water table was too high.
I soon realized that they meant the auxiliary chapel on the lower floor. It was accessible by a staircase as well as an outside street entrance. It was a room not much bigger than a large walk-in closet. (Kidding.)
So I went, taking my daughter’s hand. And the first thing I saw upon entering the room was a black hat. I had not seen a black hat in… years.
A black hat in Palm Beach! I might as well have come upon an alien descending from a flying saucer.
And under the hat was a tall, thin young man.
I sat in the back, put my daughter on my lap.
He said the prayers with authority and enthusiasm. He had a pleasant, engaging demeanor. He was inclusive, welcoming everyone, bringing others into the service. I immediately knew that I was home and that I would never leave.
Before we were Palm Beach Synagogue, now celebrating its 23rd year, we were Palm Beach Orthodox Minyan.
A young doctor and his family were planning on relocating to Palm Beach from Boulder, Colorado and wanted to start an Orthodox minyan. The doctor asked his Chabad rabbi in Boulder, Rabbi Pesach Scheiner, if he knew anyone in south Florida who could help him.
Rabbi Scheiner said, “Well, there is my brother, Moshe. He just moved to Miami from Brooklyn with his wife. He is working in medical sales. Maybe he will come up for Shabbat.”
That is how Rabbi Moshe Scheiner came to Palm Beach. At first he commuted from Miami, then he and his wife, Dinie, rented an apartment.
Suddenly we were celebrating Shabbat and Yomim Tovim that were full of joy, camaraderie and shared learning.
Rabbi Scheiner and his wife included the children of congregants in all events. Being young themselves, and both coming from large families (they had no children of their at the time; they would come to have six), they focused their attention on our youngsters.
We soon left the basement and moved to the top floor of the Palm Beach Hotel around the corner. More and more people joined us.
A photograph of one of our first Chanukahs appeared in the local paper showing the shul filled with over a hundred joyous people. Palm Beach now had its first Orthodox synagogue. We started a Sunday School. My son was the first bar mitzvah in 1995.
Then we bought a building. Over the years we added two more buildings.
Today, Palm Beach Synagogue is a place of excitement and of respite. The sanctuary is filled with light. Trailing leaves on a faux marble background decorate the magnificent Aron Kodesh. Its pediment is crowned with the words “Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed” (Know Before Whom You Stand) in gold-gilt letters.
We have celebrated Shabbatot, holidays, births, deaths and engagements (the engagement of my daughter, then 19, was announced by Rabbi Scheiner one Shabbat. He said, “Stop the presses! Mr. Rosenberg, Elaine father, just told me that Claire and Nathan are engaged! Mazel Tov!”)
Rabbi Scheiner has great courage, too. During times of great stress, fear, following domestic terrorism and attacks on Israel, he has stood at the bimah and spoken words of strength, consoling us, giving us guidance and insight into the events.
He is a great Torah scholar. He speaks with faith, confidence and inspiration.
We have had the privilege of hosting many esteemed Jewish leaders over the years including Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, OBM, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi YY Jacobson, Rabbi DovBer Pinson; Mort Klein, Professor Mordechai Kedar, Steve Emerson, Edwin Black, Yoram Ettinger, Rebbetzin Chana Henkin, Nitzna Darsahn-Lieitner, Michael Freund, Cantors Gideon Zelermyer, Yitzchak Meyer Helfgott, Netanel Hirshtik, Tzvi Grynhaim (plus choir!); Netanel Baram and many others.
The Sunday school program is attended by elementary, middle and high school students. We have weekly adult study groups. We are, in a way, a living Torah.
The goal of Palm Beach Synagogue is, I believe, learning.
It is clear that despite great odds and probably to the surprise of many, Rabbi Scheiner and Rebbetzin Scheiner have succeeded in bringing Yiddishkeit to Palm Beach.
And they did it with hard work and wisdom, drawing on their education, heritage and ruach which they share with us all.