Fun In The Sun
Detroiters find South Florida alluring, especially in winter.
If an exciting perk of being in another city is a surprise encounter with someone from back home, imagine doing it surrounded by palm trees and in the warmth of near-forgotten sunshine in the midst of winter.
While temperatures are frigid here at home, slews of Detroiters are vacationing, “wintering” and even settling in South Florida, where this time of year it is difficult to find a mall, restaurant, airport gate or park not frequented by Jewish Michiganders.
For Harry Plonskier, the more the better.
The former Oak Parker and his wife, Cindy, purchased a vacation home in Delray Beach in 2005 “to enjoy the lifestyle and weather.” They became full-time residents six years later.
“I stay very connected to my friends from Michigan — and some who have moved away,” he says. “I will have three sets of Michigan friends visit us during the first few months of 2016.”
Holding an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan, Plonskier says, “I am an avid Wolverine fan, with my house, golf clubs and attire generally considerably blue and gold. I am notorious for my deep blue-and-gold heritage, wearing blue-and-gold attire for golf, tennis, parties, etc. I am known for putting a Michigan logo ball and am frequently accosted with a ‘Go Blue’ salutation.”
Plonskier spends much of his time welcoming neighbors new to Mizner Country Club, where he serves on the membership committee. For five years, he has organized the twice-weekly Mizner Golf Buddies, rotating team participants from a roster of 56 players, making sure they get a chance to meet and play golf with other members.
Snowflakes And Snowbirds
Detroiters are attracted to South Florida by everything from year-round sunshine, beaches, golf courses and job opportunities to Florida-based family, reasonable cost of living, cruise ports, restaurants, warm-weather health benefits — and largely, by other Detroiters.
Some choose to retire and relocate permanently. Some rent or time share for part of the season. “Snowbirds” purchase a second home and stay through the winter months, often driving or transporting cars that mark parking spaces with Michigan license plates.
“Snowflakes” travel back and forth between their northern and southern residences. In both groups are individuals who work remotely or take a 2.5-hour flight to and from Detroit-based jobs, as well as those who create new employment opportunities while in Florida.
In a 2014 JNS.org story, Jewish demographer Dr. Ira M. Sheskin estimated 555,000 Jews live in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, whose cities include Miami, Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Jupiter, Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach and Palm Beach Gardens. Half are 65 years and older, with more Jews retiring to Florida than ever before.
Sheskin says Jews started to relocate to South Florida in the 1920s and 1930s. Friends and family would visit and then decide to join them in what he refers to as a “chain migration,” with the initial settlers providing guidance to the next wave.
South Florida is home to 20 Jewish day schools and three major Jewish federations and 200 synagogues, with full- and part-time residents holding membership.
For the past several years, some Detroiters have flocked to Miami for Passover, including Rivka Jacobs and her family.
“We usually stay at the Marco Polo, which has an exclusive Passover program, right on the beach, with all the necessities needed, including meals, camp for the kids and a great atmosphere,” she says.
In January, Jacobs and Ariella Shaffren, both from Southfield, traveled there as first-time participants in the Miami Half Marathon, running and walking 13.1 miles and fundraising for Chai Lifeline.
“We both had to raise at least $3,600, and actually raised more for this special organization that does amazing work with very sick or challenged children through Camp Simcha,” Jacobs says.
Traveling With A List
Some South Florida visitors prefer to be spontaneous: boating, scuba diving, snorkeling and even taking short cruises on a whim.
But Lisa and Ethan Gilan’s family travels with a system. Spending winter break in Boynton Beach since 2001, first at Ethan’s parents’ condo and now at Lisa’s parents’ winter home.
In time, the West Bloomfield family, including Eden, 15, and Jonah, 13, has narrowed down their favorite sites and restaurants, following a basic schedule for repeat visits to these places.
“We have been ordering kosher Chinese carryout from Orchids Garden in Boca for a number of years on Christmas Eve,” Lisa says. “We love to go to Festival Flea Market Mall [in Pompano Beach] each year on Dec. 25, where we always run into other Detroiters.
“When the kids were younger, Lion Country Safari, the Palm Beach Zoo and local parks and playgrounds were favorites. We also regularly visit Delray Beach, go to movies, Green Cay nature preserve, Super Target, Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood and the pool in my parents’ development. Eden, especially, loves our routine and insists on keeping our ‘yearly traditions.’
“The first year we visited, Ethan’s father took us on Shabbat to Chabad of Boynton Beach, which was just a trailer in the middle of a field,” she recalls. “Now there is a thriving Jewish community of shomer Shabbat families that you can see walking to one of two beautiful shuls on the same street every Shabbat and holiday.”
Hanging With The Kids
The weather is merely a perk of Rhona and Rob Fidler’s trips to Boca Raton. Contrary to the many who visit Florida-based parents and grandparents, Rhona says they travel to be with “our daughter and son-in-law, Dayna and Raphi Wald, and our three absolutely perfect grandchildren, Layla, 5, Joey, 3, and Evan, 4 months.”
On Feb. 5, while some Florida-based grandparents came home for Special Person Day at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield and Special Friends Day at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, the Fidlers attended Grandparents’ Day at Hochberg Preparatory School in Miami Beach, where Layla and Joey are students, Evan is in the infant care program and their daughter is the Hebrew-Judaics principal.
“We try to get there for as many life events as we can,” says Rhona of West Bloomfield. She has also flown in to babysit while Dayna and Raphi have gone out of town and to help out for a few weeks for each grandchild’s birth. The owner of Dance City in Birmingham, Fidler also attends Layla’s dance recitals in Florida.
During visits, she says, “Mostly we just hang with our kids and grandkids, doing the same things we’d probably do if they lived closer to us.”
Where To Eat?
“Perhaps the biggest highlight of our trips is frequenting as many kosher restaurants as possible,” Lisa Gilan says. “It’s even exciting to see the huge kosher sections in the local supermarkets.”
Throughout South Florida are eateries on the beach and restaurants with tables set outside. Yet Detroiters are attracted to the Sanders Hot Fudge, Detroit-style coney dogs, National chili sauce, Better Made potato chips, Vernors and Labatt Blue beers on the menu at the Grand Tavern in Delray Beach, where patrons can watch Michigan sporting events on 22 HD TVs.
The restaurant is owned and operated by the Lucaj family, former Detroiters with Grand Tavern restaurants in Farmington Hills and Rochester Hills.
For Ron Elkus of Huntington Woods, it’s all about the food. In late January, he visited his dad, Phil, and stepmom, Jeannie, snowbirds from Farmington Hills who own a home in Delray Beach.
The Florida Elkuses have their favorites, but Ron says, “Sometimes they will scout out new restaurants and will be excited to share their new finds. Usually when we are sitting down at one meal, the topic will be where we will be eating the next meal.”
Perhaps the greatest South Florida connector of Detroit eaters is waiter extraordinaire Gerry Basila, who grew up in West Bloomfield and lived in Birmingham. A former server at the Stage Deli in West Bloomfield, and 220 and Cameron’s Steakhouse, both in Birmingham, he now greets customers at Ben’s New York Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant and Caterers in Boca Raton.
Basila welcomes new patrons with the query, “Where are you from?” If they are current or former Detroiters, he starts to connect. Repeat diners are met with a run-down of which other Detroiters recently frequented the restaurant.
“Customers always remember me from the Stage,” Basila says. “People come in all the time and ask, ‘Who is the guy from Michigan?’”
Attracting Other Detroiters
“Three years ago, I was sitting at Starbucks and engaged in a conversation with a woman named Cheryl Dater at the next table,” says former Oak Parker Dr. Martin Bogrow, who now lives in Boca Raton. “We discovered we both were from Michigan — and we were high school classmates at Oak Park High!”
Dater suggested they plan a get-together for former Oak Parkers who now live in South Florida.
From there, Bogrow created a Meetup group for former Detroiters in South Florida, holding gatherings at various venues. The group expanded to include those from other Detroit-area cities, along with snowbirds and vacationers. Earlier this year, the group — with membership of more than 100 — was taken over by Grand Tavern’s owners, with all events taking place at the restaurant.
About the same time, with an email list provided by Bogrow, Dater formed a group for participants who met the criteria that “Dexter-Davidson and Nine Mile had to bring back memories,” says Dater, who moved to Boca in 2002. She is planning a first event for the end of March.
Even without speaking, Bogrow often attracts other Detroiters with his clothing. “Whenever I wear my MSU cap, I will meet someone who will say, ‘Hey, you from Michigan? Me, too!’ and we start chatting,” said Bogrow, a Floridian since 1985.
With shirts, hats and other gear sporting Detroit Tigers, Lions, Red Wings and U-M logos and player names, Rick Dorfman (the author’s son), a former Detroiter now of Boca Raton, rarely misses a TV sports event highlighting his teams. He usually watches televised games or attends them in person with other ex-pats, who often dress their children as young Detroit sports fans.
A U-M graduate, Dorfman is connected to the school’s alumni group, the U-M Club of the Palm Beaches. The MSU Alumni Club of South Florida is based in Fort Lauderdale.
Detroiters also were brought together through Temple Shir Shalom’s Jan. 8 “Shabbat service in Florida” at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Temple Israel’s Feb. 5 “Shabbat in the Sun” service at a Boca Raton high school and Congregation Shaarey Zedek’s “Concert in the Sun” Feb. 14 at B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton.
“It is a riot bumping into people you know,” said Elkus, who attended SAJE in the Sun, the Detroit Jewish Community Center’s Seminars for Adult Jewish Enrichment’s Jan. 25 panel discussion for Detroiters in Florida. (See related story on page 6.)
“There is a comfort zone or a feeling of they were brought up the same way; they understand me,” Elkus says of seeing other Detroiters in South Florida.
“This trip, I ran into a friend who lives one block away at home and I haven’t seen her in a few years; we said we have to go to Florida to see each other.
“When you go into one of the programs or restaurants that is 100 percent Jewish, you almost feel disappointed when you don’t bump into a fellow Detroiter.”
- The 10th annual JCC Michigan-Florida Reunion Dinner Golf Classic and Games takes place Tuesday, March 15, at Indian Spring Country Club in Boynton Beach, benefiting JCC Day Camps, Sarah and Irving Pitt Child Development Center and programs for children and teens with special needs. Call Mort Plotnick, (248) 210-8489.
- For details on the Grand Tavern Detroiters group, call the restaurant, (561) 279-2779.
- For information on Cheryl Daters’ group for former Oak Parkers, email
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dater also is looking for old photos or videos taken in Oak Park.
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman, Contributing Writer