Elderly Jews shouldn’t move to South Florida. That’s the advice of the Jewish welfare agency serving this area, which has more old Jews than anywhere in the country but New York. If your grandmother doesn’t live within half an hour of the Boynton Beach JCC, her sister probably does.
Four years into the recession, things aren’t looking up in the retirement communities here. People who relocated a decade ago are out of cash with nowhere to turn.
“They moved down here thinking they were going to have a life in the sunshine,” said Neil Newstein, executive director and CEO of Alpert Jewish Family & Children’s Service, which struggles to stanch the exploding economic needs of the Jewish community here. “Now it’s disaster time.”
And it’s not just the old: Young families are stuck in developments pockmarked with foreclosed homes. Working people can’t find jobs.
With the presidential election weeks away and the candidates neck and neck in Florida, Republicans and Democrats are fighting for stray votes in key communities like Lake Worth. Jews here generally say they will vote for the same party they supported in 2008, which usually means the Democrats. But few believe that the election will make much of a difference. To residents of this desperate edge of Palm Beach County, the presidential race seems beside the point.
On the map, the gated retirement communities along Hagen Ranch Road just west of Boynton Beach look like a cross section of a human brain, the cul-de-sacs folded in gently curving layers. The names of the developments promise refinement: Venetian Isles, Valencia Shores, Ponte Vecchio.
Arnold Menzer lives near here in a development called Bermuda Isle. He moved to the area in 1992, well before the boom. Now 78, the onetime shoe importer says over a chicken salad sandwich in a bagel shop that he’s certain he’ll run out of money before he dies. His house is worth a fraction of the nearly half a million dollars he’s put into it, and nothing’s selling at Bermuda Isle anyhow. He has no way out, however sick or old he gets.
Galit Marks, 24, lives a few miles away in a house full of young anarchists in downtown Lake Worth. When she moved here earlier this year her house had no water and no electricity. She and three friends lived in the place rent-free while they fixed it up. There’s water now, and a makeshift stove, and fresh paint on the walls.
Marks voted for Obama in 2008, back when she was a liberal. Since then she’s had trouble finding professional work. She pays off her student loans working as a waitress at a vegan restaurant and tending bar at a Chili’s. Her roommates are anarchists, too. Marks is still planning to vote in 2012, but that makes her unusual in her circle.
Menzer and Marks don’t know each other. But Menzer said that he doesn’t blame Marks and her friends for their alienation.
“I can understand these kids. I really do,” said Menzer. “The society has changed.” Menzer was offered four different jobs when he graduated from college. “I worry about my grandsons,” he said. “What are they going to be?”
Lake Worth didn’t always bleed away into sprawl. When 68-year-old real estate agent Cory Fishman moved to Florida in 1972, Hagen Ranch Road was lined with gladiola farms. Migrant agricultural workers bunked in pastel-painted concrete block homes beside the road.
Today, Hagen Ranch Road is all retirement communities. Phony stone waterfalls flow next to the closed gates. Inside, identical homes sit end to end, so that it’s hard to tell when you’ve circled back to where you started. Homeowners on the inside rows pay a premium for views of small, kitsch manmade ponds.
The concept here was country club–style living a step up from what was on offer at Century Village, the classic 1970s Jewish condo community a half hour away in West Palm Beach. “When our generation moved down that was no longer satisfying,” Fishman said. They wanted something more, and “they had the means to be able to afford it.”
Or at least they thought they did. These weren’t the lower-income seniors who live in Century Village today. But they also weren’t wealthy enough to afford Boca Raton, never mind Palm Beach, the skinny little town on a barrier island just east of here. Palm Beach has The Breakers Hotel and massive mansions and a condominium development actually called The Patrician.
“This is a blue jeans kind of place,” said Rabbi Anthony Fratello, 41, spiritual leader of Temple Shaarei Shalom, a Reform synagogue outside of Boynton Beach. “It’s a solid middle-class area. Yes, you’ve got doctors and lawyers. But we have an awful lot of teachers.”
Young families followed the retirees to the area, answering ads promising “Boca living at Boynton prices.” Their developments began to fill in 2005 and 2006, teeing them up for extraordinary foreclosure rates when the 2008 financial crash came. Boynton Beach alone added 12,000 Jewish households between 1999 and 2005.
When Todd Kevitch, 45, moved his family into a development in West Boynton in 2008, the market had already begun to fall from the wildly inflated prices his neighbors had paid. He thought he had caught a deal during a momentary lull. He was wrong.
“Immediately after we bought, six months later, the values kept going down, people became a lot more apathetic, miserable,” said Kevitch, who works as a real estate broker. “You could see lawns growing higher, pools turning black.”
Two homes across the street from his were vacant for three years. The house next door is still empty.
“It’s not scary. It’s depressing,” Kevitch said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It happens gradually. You kind of live with it.”
A JCC in West Palm Beach closed. A Conservative Jewish day school in Boynton Beach closed. Enrollment at the Hebrew school at Temple Beth Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue near Lake Worth, dropped from 120 kids to fewer than 30. The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County raised $17 million less in 2009 than it had in 2007.
The Jewish Family & Children’s Service, which was used to fielding a few irregular emergency calls from the chronically poor, was deluged with panicked phone calls from middle-class and once-wealthy people. Adult children began moving in with their parents at the retirement communities, bringing along husbands and girlfriends — but risking expulsion if they brought children.
Donald Steinberg’s home is still underwater. A teacher in the Palm Beach County public school system, he has a soft Quebecois accent and a serious face. Steinberg bought a home in a development near Lake Worth in 2000. Now he owes more on it than the home is worth, but he’s not walking away.
“I wasn’t raised that way,” Steinberg said. “A man has responsibilities.”
Steinberg, 47, voted for John McCain in 2008. He’s voting for Mitt Romney this year, but he doesn’t sound enthusiastic. “At this point I would say he would do a little bit better of a job” than Obama has done, Steinberg said. “I really think this country is in such dire straits, I don’t think anyone could fix it.”
The anarchists don’t air-condition their place in downtown Lake Worth, but the shotgun house stays cool in the shade of a ficus tree. There’s an unexplained scythe next to the door and fire-dancing gear in the yard. They’ve planted seeds outside, though their claim to be growing vegetables is undermined by their pronouncement that they’re going to use the full-sized rusted-out tractor sitting in front of the house to till their tiny plot.
Marks lives here. Her roommate, Leah Rothschild, 30, doesn’t have a car or a credit card. Both work for the radical environmental magazine Earth First! Journal, affiliated with a movement known for civil disobedience against lumber and mining concerns.
There are more than a few young Jews among the 50 or so anarchists in Lake Worth. The anarchists here organize on environmental and immigrant rights issues, among others, and try to be self-sufficient.
“We believe in self-government, we believe in autonomy,” Rothschild said. “We want to be in control of our own lives.”
Rothschild is intense. She speaks in long anecdotes, tugging at a single braid hidden in her long black hair. She has a spiral tattoo on her shoulder and a stud in each nostril. Her father immigrated to the United States from Jerusalem as a child. He was laid off a decade ago from a corporate job, and now, at 75, he runs a flower shop. She doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to retire.
“In theory I’m pro-Obama, but Obama’s one of those mask-wearing presidents, like Clinton was,” Rothschild said, referring to Bill Clinton’s failure, in her eyes, to fulfill promises he made on environmental issues. Rothschild said she likely would not vote.
Another young Jewish Lake Worth anarchist was more direct about not voting. “The economic crisis has been created by Wall Street and corporate greed, with which both major presidential candidates are intimately tied,” wrote Audrey Paisley, 25, in an email. “I do not believe any of their rhetoric that says otherwise and I am disgusted by the whole charade.”
Sebastian Gordon stood in the empty parking lot of Temple Beth Tikvah. The hood of his pickup was open. His mother had died two weeks before, so he had come to synagogue to say Kaddish. Temple Beth Tikvah can usually pull together a minyan, though not always without calling in synagogue staff. But today more than a dozen men showed up for the lengthy morning service. Gordon was lucky.
At least, until he got back out to the parking lot and found his truck wouldn’t start. His nose was smudged with engine grease while he stood waiting for the mechanic on his landscaping crew to show up and help get the pickup going again.
Gordon moved here from Argentina 12 years ago, just before the 2001 economic collapse that sent middle-class Argentineans scavenging garbage dumps for food.
“I was feeling something really bad coming,” Gordon said of his decision to emigrate when he did. “I came here, and another crisis followed me.”
South Florida’s economic meltdown hit Gordon’s landscaping business hard in 2008. But in 2010 the clients came back, and since then he’s been doing all right. He won’t have his citizenship for another two years, but Gordon said he’d vote for President Obama if he could. Obama said on election night that things wouldn’t get better right away, Gordon remembers. “That I keep in my mind,” he said. “He didn’t lie to us.”
Others, too, say they see signs of recovery. Fishman, who will also vote for Obama, said that homes were selling again, and cut an interview short to head to a showing. Calls to Jewish Family & Children’s Service have leveled out. A new Hebrew-language charter school has moved into the space vacated by the shuttered day school, and a new JCC is being planned.
A true rebound will go some way toward opening up more jobs, potentially righting the housing market and helping working people like Gordon, Fishman and Steinberg. The problems facing the area’s growing elderly population, however, will almost certainly get worse.
Despite its reputation as a retirement destination, Florida isn’t set up to care for its rapidly growing, increasingly needy elderly, local experts say. The state is one of a handful with no state income tax, and social services for the elderly and disabled are consequently far less comprehensive than in the Northeast.
“It’s like the Wild West here,” said Jenni Frumer, chief operating officer of the JF&CS.
It’s not just that state governmental services are inadequate; the basic infrastructure of the gated communities themselves makes them particularly bad places to grow old.
“We’ve succeeded in building what will be in years to come ghettoes of people who can’t get in or out,” said Dr. Alan Sadowsky, senior vice president of community-based services at MorseLife, a West Palm Beach Jewish charity serving the elderly. “If you’re a senior and you lose the ability to drive [here] … you’re done.”
Outside the gates, there’s little public transportation. Inside the gates there’s trouble, too: Most buildings in Century Village don’t have elevators for residents of second story condos. That wasn’t a problem for retirees who moved in planning to go to assisted living when they grew old and sick. But many have been forced to give up on that plan. Menzer, the 78-year-old who said he would outlive his money, has neighbors who are staying put despite needing higher levels of care because they can’t sell their homes and therefore can’t afford to move.
JF&CS social workers sometimes advise retirees in higher-end communities like Menzer’s to downsize to cheaper places like Century Village, where you can buy a condo now for $6,000 down. “They get mad because they don’t want to lower their lifestyle,” Newstein said.
The charities, meanwhile, have their own problems. Wealthy Jews in Palm Beach prefer to donate to causes up North, which hold fundraisers in the area during the winter. “The very, very wealthy are not supporting local Palm Beach charities,” said Josephine Stayman, 88, a Palm Beach resident who has helped raised funds for the JCC here. “They are residents of Palm Beach for tax reasons, but the local charities do not appeal to them that much.”
On a recent Friday, a few dozen seniors gathered in the lunchroom of MorseLife’s sparkling West Palm Beach facility. The seniors were there for breakfast, lunch and Bingo, as part of a county-funded program that MorseLife took on after the JCC that previously housed it closed a few years ago.
For some of the attendees the daily meals the service provides are a literal lifeline, Sadowsky said. For others it’s more of a social outlet. Whatever the value, it’s a small program. Between 32 and 40 seniors attend each day, according to MorseLife. In the eyes of the staff at JF&CS, headquartered in an office park ten minutes away, that’s a small drop in a growing ocean.
Visitors see the services available at MorseLife and the lifestyle at the high-end retirement communities and they think they’ll be taken care of if they retire here, JF&CS’s Frumer said. “They really don’t believe — what do you mean, there’s no help?”
Newstein, the JF&CS CEO, believes that there are state-level political remedies to some of the problems facing the elderly here. But he doesn’t see anyone instituting a state income tax anytime soon. “I don’t think there’s any political will to solve it, by any party,” Newstein said.
There’s a billboard near the Boynton Beach exit on I-95 you can see when driving up from Ft. Lauderdale that aims to focus some of this inchoate frustration into a vote for Romney. The text reads like the subject line of a chain email: “OBAMA … OY VEY!!! Had enough?”
A web address leads to a Republican Jewish Coalition site featuring videos of Jewish Democrats explaining why they support Romney. Some focus on Israel, others on the economy.
The apparent certainty of the voters in the video that a vote for Romney will fix what Obama couldn’t is hard to find on the ground in Florida.
“My life is sheltered,” said Buddy Marks, 72, contrasting himself with many others in the area as he sat at a breakfast table at Temple Torah in Boynton Beach amid a cluster of older men and women. Marks said he was still undecided. Though he voted for Obama four years ago and is “not a big Mitt Romney fan,” he said that he hadn’t quite settled on his candidate yet.
“I don’t know who to believe when they’re talking to each other,” he said.
For others who are not as insulated, the problem is less who to believe than the limits to what any president could do. Said Steinberg, the public school teacher: “All empires end.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.