Here’s the secret to fostering unity in a Jewish community and for attracting people who have never been involved before: Bring all the rabbis together — all of them — for regular lunches and build among them a sense of trust and friendship. Then, have them get their congregations to drop their annual Purim carnivals and instead pool their resources for a massive community-wide carnival.
At least that’s what the Jewish community in Boca Raton, Fla., did this year. By the time the last hamantash was eaten, individual congregations had spent less than they would have on their own carnivals and got something much bigger: a giant slide, a train and carnival swings, and a wider sense of communal belonging. “It looked like [you were] at a county fair,” Rabbi Josh Broide said.
Broide heads the Center for Jewish Engagement at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, the organization that brought the rabbis together for lunch. The Purim carnival, which was attended by some 2,000 people, is one example of why the South Palm Beach County federation this month won the Jerusalem Unity Prize. The prize is given to “individuals, organizations and initiatives in Israel and throughout the Jewish world whose actions are instrumental in advancing mutual respect for others amongst the Jewish people,” according to the prize organization. The South Palm Beach County federation was the first Diaspora recipient since the prize was established two years ago.
South Palm Beach County’s success shows the unique ability of Jewish Federations to promote diversity at the same time they strengthen Jewish unity. Broide said that success didn’t happen overnight. They’ve been working at it for 15 years. “The secret is nothing more than trust and friendship,” he said. “It’s about Reform, Conservative and Orthodox and federation working together.”
The South Palm Beach County federation started the engagement center in 2014 to encourage unaffiliated Jews to become involved in the organized Jewish community and to bring together rabbis from different denominations. They hired Broide, a modern Orthodox rabbi who had been doing outreach work, to run the effort. “He is the new face of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, committed full time to luring Jews into communal life,” the Sun Sentinel reported in 2015.
To be sure, the Jewish Federation in Boca Raton is far from the only — or the first — such organization to actively support community-wide gatherings. Here in our community, for example, annual celebrations of Israel and commemorations of Yom Hashoah have long been characterized by the variety of Jewish life in attendance. But getting rabbis together regardless of affiliation — as opposed to keeping the Orthodox and non-Orthodox relatively separate — and then getting them to promote active involvement by their communities in joint programming seems to be a particularly novel solution to intercommunity tension.
Jewish communities everywhere will be studying the South Palm Beach model in the months and years ahead. We take comfort in the assessment of Broide, who said, “It’s not so tough.”