JUPITER — The phone calls began trickling in. "Is there a place to go buy kosher food?" said the long-distance caller.
From as far away as Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, the number of curious callers has swelled from those wondering how soon the new synagogue might be coming to northern Palm Beach County.
"I keep saying: 'Not yet,' " Rabbi Berel Barash has answered. "But we're going to get there."
By November, the Chabad Jewish Center of Jupiter is expected to break ground on the future site of its new North County Jewish Center and become a cornerstone of Abacoa's sprawling neighborhoods. It will offer worship services and youth education to the growing number of unaffiliated Jews migrating from up North and the rest of South Florida.
This year, a population study released by The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County launched the county into a national fourth-place ranking for the largest U.S. Jewish population, with 255,550 Jews, behind New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The study found that one out of every five residents is Jewish and showed that north Palm Beach County had the county's third-largest increase of Jewish households between 1999 and 2005. The region's average growth rate was 450 households a year.
That kind of population boom has local Jewish religious leaders anticipating the center will become a new home for many in the north county Jewish community.
"There are enough unaffiliated Jews in north county for 12 synagogues," said Rabbi Alan Sherman, an executive vice president of Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis. "All blessings to him."
The new Jewish center will be the second synagogue to open in Jupiter following last month's dedication of the Reform Temple Beth Am, a $4 million synagogue, which has an estimated 350 families.
The north county Jewish center, which still is being designed, will be 17,000 square feet on a 1.5-acre site bought for $1 million just off Military Trail.
It will feature a youth synagogue designed like a movie-theater screening room to show educational films and a room for Mommy-and-Me programs. It will stand across from Abacoa's New Haven neighborhood.
The facility will be a welcome change for the roaming 100-member congregation that has been improvising services in places such as Abacoa Golf Club. Officials also run a weekly after-school youth program for the Chabad Hebrew school out of Lighthouse Elementary School with instructor Sarah Barash, the rabbi's wife.
The Jewish center probably will become a new attraction for college students from the nearby Florida Atlantic University Jupiter campus and the Palm Beach Community College north campus in Palm Beach Gardens. Both schools have newly established Hillel chapters.
FAU junior Avishai Zonnenberg recently transferred from Miami's Florida International University and joined the student Hillel group to meet more people. The economics major also started attending Chabad services led by Barash. Despite being from Israel, he did not grow up religious. Yet he is now is looking for an opportunity to bring Barash to the college campus and have him meet other students.
"Learning about your heritage is something that will help to give you an identity," said Zonnenberg, 28.
The biggest draw may be the unusually nontraditional role the center plans to take in a maverick community where Jews of all denominations reside.
Two years ago, Robert Slavitt and his wife, Evelyn, lived in Maryland and rarely attended services. But once they moved, they began seeking out ties to the community and contacted Barash for information about the Chabad service.
"We wanted to be part of something here," said Slavitt, who was raised conservative.
The Slavitts eventually became part of the Hanukkah celebration at Abacoa Town Center and realized how much interest there was for a second synagogue.
"The first year, we had 350 people, and the second year, we had 400 people," said Evelyn Slavitt. "And that first year, we had no idea whether we would have 50 or 350 people."
The congregation is expected to grow exponentially with the influx anticipated by the arrival of The Scripps Research Institute in Abacoa. The research facility has been preceded by a flock of professionals who hope to become part of the spin-off business it is expected to generate.
Anat Hakim, a former Washington, D.C., attorney, has found a home in New Haven but has not found a home for her faith yet.
"We moved here for Scripps," said Hakim, who is an intellectual property attorney.
Driving by recently, she noticed Barash and his wife celebrating the bedikat chometz tradition with children from the Hebrew school. The tradition is celebrated before Passover with a ritual search for 10 pieces of leavened bread that must be discarded from the household. This time, the children improvised and searched for the bread in the brush where the center one day will stand.
"We've been looking for something like this," she said.
For information, log on to www.jewishjupiter.com
Chabad Jewish Center of Jupiter • 1209 Main Street Suite 110 • Jupiter, FL 33458-5244 • 561-694-6950