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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (JTA) – When Orthodox Jewish clients approach local real estate agent Sharon Brandt looking for a home in this part of South Florida, she tells them to make sure they have places for their children to school before they buy.

When Rabbi Yoni Fein, principal of Brauser Maimonides Academy in Hollywood, receives inquiries from potential out-of-state parents, he asks them to make sure they can find a home before enrolling. their children.

This Catch-22 of a simultaneous housing shortage and waiting lists at area schools is no coincidence: Hollywood may be one of the fastest growing Orthodox Jewish communities in the country .

“It’s very rare for a house to show up,” Brandt said of the housing market here. “The real shortage started in January, February, March 2021. It’s just crazy.”

Throughout the pandemic, Orthodox Jewish communities in southern Florida, from Miami in the north to Boca Raton, have experienced a major population boom triggered by a pandemic. And Hollywood, which was once home to a small modern Orthodox community with a single Ashkenazi synagogue and a small Jewish school, is quickly becoming one of the fastest growing Orthodox communities in the country.

As the community has grown over the past five years or so, the pandemic has proven to be a major engine of growth for South Florida. New residents and longtime residents of the area say the new flexibility of remote working, combined with the frustration over COVID restrictions elsewhere, has led people to freer Florida. This migration changes Florida’s demographics from a retreat center for aging Jews to an exciting place to live for young families.

Rabbi Arnie Samlan, head of Jewish education at the Broward County Jewish Federation, called the phenomenon “Orthodox aliya in Florida”, using the Hebrew term to settle in Israel.

“This Florida joke being God’s waiting room?” This is no longer true, ”Samlan said.

While jobs have long been a major factor preventing people from moving to Florida – the state lacks a major hub for jobs in industries like finance and marketing that often attract Orthodox Jews to the area. New York – Remote work opportunities during the pandemic have changed that. Some companies have even moved all of their operations to Florida, bringing their employees and families.

Max Klein moved with his wife and three children from New Milford, New Jersey, to Hollywood in late June following the move of his investment firm from New York to Miami. For Klein, the fact that her job is moving made the decision natural. But the perks of living in Florida sweetened the deal.

“It’s taxes, it’s more free during COVID, good weather all year round, it all adds up,” he said.

Sharon Brandt, a local real estate agent, said the housing market has never been so tight in Hollywood. “It’s just gone crazy,” she said. (Shira Hanau)

Leora Cohen hadn’t fully integrated her new Florida lifestyle after moving to Hollywood from the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 2019. But when she saw her friends in New York City trapped inside with their kids for the pandemic while her own children played outside all winter, she realized she could never turn back.

“I miss my family, but I’ll never leave Florida,” Cohen said. She later added: “The joys of summer in New York are our whole life in Florida.”

Even at a time when COVID deaths are at an all time high in Florida as mask warrants continue to be rejected, the state’s relaxed approach to containing COVID has proven appealing to some.

“There are certainly a number of political reasons people are moving here, the lockdowns and how different states could have handled COVID,” said Fein, director of the Brauser Maimonides Academy. “And they ended up staying. I know a bunch of families who moved here because they didn’t know when COVID was going to end, so they came here. ”

Rabbi Yosef Weinstock of Young Israel of Hollywood said the size of his synagogue has more than doubled in the past 15 years, but the past 18 months have been a time of unprecedented growth for the community.

“In the books, we are now over 650 families, but this is just the starting point,” Weinstock said, noting that the number of synagogue members has increased by more than 60 families since the start of the pandemic. He believes there are still around 200 families who have moved to the area but have not yet joined the synagogue.

With limited housing stock in existing Orthodox neighborhoods, newcomers bought houses further away, leading to the establishment of satellite synagogues in the new neighborhoods.

In Boca Raton, the local Orthodox synagogue has two new outposts – to the west and to the east – to accommodate emerging communities. Young Israel of Hollywood has a satellite site in West Hollywood with its own rabbi and recently hired another rabbi at the main site to meet the needs of the growing community.

“There’s a bit of saturation,” Weinstock said of the Emerald Hills neighborhood where the Hollywood Orthodox community has been based since its founding in the 1980s.

One benefit of this saturation is the explosion of the kosher food scene in Hollywood and other parts of South Florida. In Surfside, a small seaside community, several blocks are dominated by upscale kosher restaurants ranging from steakhouses and barbecue to Japanese and Italian. In Hollywood, several large kosher grocery stores offer shelf after shelf ready meals and freshly prepared sushi on a daily basis.

Part of the growth in recent years has been due to South Florida’s popularity as a vacation spot among Orthodox Jews, according to Dani Klein, who runs the kosher restaurant site YeahThatsKosher.com. Once a large number of Orthodox Jews began to settle in Florida full-time, it created even more demand for top-quality kosher restaurants, which attracted more people to settle there.

“In the last 10 years or so, we’ve gone from a lot of kosher restaurants to a lot of great, really good quality restaurants,” Klein said of the South Florida kosher food scene. “We have seen Surfside emerge as the second best kosher restaurant corridor after probably Crown Heights. [in Brooklyn] in the countryside.”

At the Brauser Maimonides Academy, the massive migration to Florida has led to waiting lists at every level.

Fein had moved to Hollywood from New Jersey to run the school in 2017. He saw dozens of friends following, turning a favorite vacation spot for New York-area Orthodox Jews into a home.

With the growth of communities in South Florida in recent years, Fein said, newcomers no longer have to sacrifice the amenities they expect, like the many kosher restaurants and grocery stores and high-quality Jewish schools. they had in New York.

A wide selection of wines at The Grove, one of Hollywood’s many Kosher grocery stores. (Shira Hanau)

From a student body of around 450 when Fein started four years ago, Brauser Maimonides now has around 650 students in kindergarten through eighth grade – with a waiting list in each year.

While Florida’s approach to COVID containment may prove to be a short-lived draw for Orthodox families, the economic benefits of the move, especially when it comes to paying for Jewish school, will have probably a longer lifespan.

Fein said Florida’s recently expanded state-funded scholarships for private schools were a “major driver” for families who send their children to Jewish schools. In May, Governor Ron DeSantis enacted a bill that would allow families earning up to $ 100,000 to access publicly funded education vouchers. (The amount of the scholarship depends on a number of factors, including income and number of children.)

The scholarships, he said, “essentially solve the tuition fee crisis for many families.”

For families who do not qualify for state-funded scholarships, the fact that Florida does not have state income tax can mean a very different outcome for families coming from states. heavily taxed like California, New York and New Jersey.

Allan Jacob, president of Teach FL, the Orthodox Union’s educational choice advocacy organization, and a member of the DeSantis transition team, recently wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal touting the benefits of Florida day school parents.

“Beyond the choice of school, Jewish families who move love the idea of ​​living in a state with no income tax and a government with a lighter touch,” Jacob wrote.

Even with the widespread expansion, several longtime residents said the larger community retained the feel of a smaller one – something many sought during the pandemic when so many felt isolated from their friends and of their family.

“There is a very palpable heat, not just the temperature, in our community,” Weinstock said. “It’s very family-friendly.

Fein said “you kind of have the best of both worlds.”

“You have a great infrastructure, kosher restaurants, choices of schools and shuls, lots of friends in the area, but it’s also more affordable to buy a house,” he said. “I couldn’t afford a house in New York and New Jersey. Here I was able to buy my first house.

Samlan, who moved to Miami eight years ago and recently moved to Hollywood, is renting an apartment while he waits for him to find the right home. He understands the appeal to his fellow Orthodox Jews coming from outside the state.

“If you like to come here for Pesach and Sukkot,” he said, “why not work here remotely?

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