Palm Beach Synagogue, located on the beautiful island of Palm Beach, Florida, just two blocks from the historic Breakers Hotel, is a spectacular shul – spectacular in its architecture, design, décor, elegance and simplicity – and it boasts a unique history which proves one person can change a life, a community, a world. The hyperbole is warranted once you either enter the magnificent edifice or meet Rabbi Moshe Scheiner, the founder, leader, and rabbi extraordinaire.
The humble beginnings of the Palm Beach Synagogue started with a phone call in 1994. Rabbi Moshe and Rebbetzin Dinie Scheiner, both from esteemed Lubavitch families, married in Crown Heights and soon moved to Miami Beach where the rabbi had been offered a business opportunity. Although Rabbi Scheiner had smicha, being a shul rabbi was not what he had set as a career goal. However, the rabbi’s brother, Rabbi Pesach Scheiner, was (and is still currently) a rabbi in Boulder, Colorado and he had recently helped his local residents Dr. Jeffrey and Audrey Kashuk become Torah observant Jews. The phone call from the Kashuks was advising Rabbi Moshe Scheiner that they were now living in Palm Beach and Jeffrey was trying to organize a Shabbos minyan. Would the newly relocated Rabbi Scheiner come from Miami Beach to Palm Beach to help with a Saturday morning minyan?
That phone call was the springboard, the impetus, and the catalyst for Rabbi Scheiner’s involvement with Palm Beach Jewry. Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue on the Island, offered a 500-square foot room in the basement of their facility for the purpose of holding an Orthodox minyan on Saturday mornings. After consulting with halachic authorities they arranged for a separate entrance and named it the Palm Beach Orthodox Minyan. While it was hard to consistently find 10 men every week, the small group decided to hold Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. The nearby Palm Beach Hotel had a ballroom loft that could easily be transformed into a shul, so a chazzan was hired, advertisements posted, and the fledgling minyan amazingly had 50-60 attendees for their first Yomim Tovim.
From 1994 to 1997 Rabbi Scheiner worked in the medical supply business while commuting to the Palm Beach Hotel for Shabbos with his flock of 30-50 weekly congregants. The eclectic assortment that gathered every Saturday were Orthodox Jews who had previously davened at home, several families who had been attending the Conservative synagogue, and others who were thirsting for authentic Judaism. Then there were participants who were drawn to the rabbi and his approach to outreach.
In 1998, Rabbi Scheiner left the business world and the family moved full time to Palm Beach. The minyan met Friday night and Shabbos morning. With the addition of more classes and programs and, eventually, weekday services, the name was changed to The Torah Learning Center. The congregation grew to over 100 members, and outgrew the loft at the Palm Beach Hotel. The Palm Beach Minyan/Torah Learning Center was now a full-fledged community and needed a facility to service it.
In 1999, the name was officially changed to Palm Beach Synagogue as a way of assuring that all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, would feel welcomed. PBS purchased a premier location and renovated what had previously been an office building.
Let’s clarify: it wasn’t exactly the shul that purchased the building. Palm Beach had been very anti-Semitic and there was some concern about old vestiges lingering. For example, there was a shul member whose deed from the 1960s had a clause that restricted them from selling the house to Jews. There were shul members who were concerned that a restriction similar to that of the homeowner’s may have been included in the building’s deed. Thus, as a precaution, Mr. Robert Keats, a member of the synagogue, was the gentleman who purchased the building. Then he signed it over to the Palm Beach Synagogue. Mr. Keats’ original family name was Katz and he endowed one of the stained glass windows using both names.
Two years later, PBS bought the adjacent property for use as classrooms. The third parcel was bought two years after that and included space for a social hall. In 2006, all three buildings were incorporated into one facility. In 2009, reconstruction and remodeling of the 13,000 square foot facility culminated in the 1929 Italian Gothic styled building with the Moorish atmosphere becoming one of the most beautiful synagogues in North America.
In 2016, the American Institute of Architects awarded the Palm Beach Synagogue the Religious Art & Architecture Award for Liturgical Interiors. For the re-design, architects were hired, of course, but Rabbi Scheiner asked two of the members to serve as consultants, one of whom was Laura Munder, the famed jewelry designer. Research was done on the great synagogues of Europe and elements were handpicked. Replicas of items such as the bimah and menorah were reproduced by artisans from photographs that hang on the lobby walls. The décor presents a feeling of warmth and elegance and is, well, Palm Beachy. Blues and golds play off of the themes of oceans and beaches. The twelve stained glass windows, utilizing hurricane-resistant impact glass, allow for sunlight and bright reflections. The pecky cedar ceiling was an undiscovered jewel hidden beneath a faux ceiling that was revealed in the demolition and reconstruction. The entire Beis Midrash is like a precious jewel box. It is intimate and majestic, elegant and simple. Mostly it is calm and soothing as well as awe-inspiring. It is a beautiful milieu that encourages one to serve Hashem with joy.
While Palm Beach Synagogue serves as a bonus for tourists or those attending conventions at the Breakers Hotel, having an Orthodox shul in Palm Beach makes all Jews proud. As Rabbi Scheiner says, “It’s a way to honor Hashem in offering one global community. The visitors and guests add joy to the shul because there are always new faces and the ability to make new friends. In spite of being in the epicenter of ‘the rich and famous,’ all Jews are equals, not only in the eyes of HaKadosh Boruch Hu, but in the welcoming members of PBS regardless of one’s religious or economic circumstances.”
There are currently 356 members, about 50% of them are families, and the rest made up of couples and singles. This equivocates to about 1,000 to 1,500 member units. There are classes and activities for every age group, and every level of observance. Rabbi Scheiner recognizes that everyone is not in the same place and he wants to engage people where they are. He says that there are many portals of entry into Yiddishkeit. He wants to draw them in to whichever door is of interest. The goal is for the shul to be the center for Jewish learning and living. The Rabbi, Rebbitzen, and the dedicated PBS team have created diverse programs to encourage joy, for everyone to take advantage of all that Jewish life offers. They are geared towards learning, personal growth, and the performance of mitzvot. Involvement in the local community is part of the mitzvah projects that included giving out 500 Thanksgiving meals last November.
It is impressive to see the standing room only crowd on Shabbos. Who would have thought that an Orthodox synagogue in Palm Beach could regularly fill their 200-seat capacity during the winter months and maintain a vibrancy even during the height of summer? There are currently 75 children attending the Hebrew School, 48 teens in the Maimonides Learning Institute (a post Bar/Bat Mitzvah program to encourage ongoing participation), 41 team leaders in the Solomon Leadership Program, 53 volunteers and 25 students in Project Connect (a special needs social group). There are family trips to Israel, as well as teen trips and JWRP.
When Guatemala announced its support of Jerusalem being declared the capital of Israel last year, Rabbi Scheiner felt that PBS should show its appreciation with a visit. The rav and rebbetzin, along with 35 members, met with President Jimmy Morales to express gratitude. President Morales invited the group to dinner at the National Palace which had its kitchen kashered for the first time in Guatemalan history.
The PBS guest speaker rostrum is filled with impressive names and its guest page reads like a Who’s Who of the Jewish World in typical Palm Beach fashion. Of note: Ariel Sharon, Bibi Netanyahu, Senator Lieberman, Dudu Fischer, Alan Dershowitz, Rabbi Manis Friedman, Rabbi YY Jacobson, Rabbi Lau, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman and, with PBS being a member of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Steven Weil visits annually.
Yet, from the beginnings in a closet-size room in a Conservative synagogue to a hotel ballroom, to an award winning architectural wonder, the growth can be attributed to Rabbi Scheiner. He is not only accepting of every Jew at his or her own level, he addresses each as an equal. He has a special talent for making every person feel like he is their friend and teacher. He infuses his conversations and his speeches with divrei Torah, mussar, and everyday practical guidance for living a life of tranquility and goodness. The rabbi gives a daily shiur during morning minyan that can be viewed daily on YouTube. While the focus is on the parsha, the Rabbi always tells a story or two that brings the sedra into practical application.
On a personal note, my parents were original members and attended the weekly Rabbi’s class. Although I am not a PBS member, I have known Rabbi Scheiner for over 25 years. He always exudes mentchlekeit and humility, is soft-spoken yet overtly principled.
The success of PBS is seen in the number of active participants, and in those who have increased their level of observance. Many members have made aliyah and many have seen their children lead Torah observant lives. Countless Orthodox marriages have taken place under the Rabbi’s auspices. As proof that age is not a deterrent to enlightenment, there are successes which include a 72-year-old woman becoming shomer Shabbos and an 80-year-old man putting on tefillin daily and eating only kosher food.
While most members are hard working families, there is still the “Palm Beach Factor.” There are a couple of handfuls of billionaires, numerous millionaires – three members are NFL team owners (The Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers). There are plaques with familiar names like Beren, Perelman, and Schottenstein.
The beauty of the PBS kehillah is that everyone stands before Hashem as an equal. Palm Beach Synagogue is actually a place where the rich and famous can escape the social status and world of materialism and rejoice in the spiritual oasis provided. The shul belongs to everyone and the friendships that develop create the infinite ripple effects of the mitzvot performed. Rabbi Scheiner holds baalei teshuva in high regard. He says that Hashem measures where you are coming from. While it is a blessing to be born into an observant family, he has never had to make the sacrifices nor the lifestyle changes that a baal teshuva has to make. Rabbi Scheiner frequently mentions his past as an everyday working man and humbly says that he wasn’t looking for change, but Hashem sent the phone call, the original call from a baal teshuva asking for a Shabbos minyan. Baruch Hashem, he answered and that’s how one person can change a life, a community, a world!