Boca Raton may be 1,380 miles south of Albany, but for one night each winter, it is the Shabbat place to be for Congregation Beth Emeth members and alumni. This year’s get-together was significant, marking three decades and noting Senior Rabbi Scott Shpeen’s upcoming retirement.

About 200 people gathered on Jan. 28that the Boca Renaissance for a havdalah service and dinner with Shpeen and new Co-Senior Rabbi Greg Weitzman. Among the attendees were past and present officers and trustees, some of whom had traveled from Albany for the event. Others were “snowbirds” wintering in the South or full-time Florida residents who still maintain their ties with Beth Emeth.

From left: Ashley Weitzman, Shara Siegfeld and Rabbi Scott Shpeen as he conducts havdalah at Congregation Beth Emeth’s annual Florida gathering, held on Jan. 28 at the Renaissance Hotel. Weitzman is the wife of Co-Senior Rabbi Greg Weitzman.

The Congregation Beth Emeth tradition of a winter meeting in Florida began on Jan. 28, 1994.

“As a first-time participant and a board member, attending the 2023 Boca Shabbat event was beyond memorable and meaningful for so many reasons,” said Caren Kotlow, who attended with her mother, Jane Ginsburgh. “Whether I was connecting with congregants I hadn’t seen in a while or I was anxiously awaiting to see so many close friends who have become ‘snowbirds’ … the excitement was overwhelming. It honestly was a reunion of so many of us who had been so fortunate to attend the December 2019 Israel trip through Temple Beth Emeth.”

For Shpeen, the reunion also brought back many memories. “It is bittersweet for sure, but heartwarming to know how much the event and maintaining that connection to CBE has meant to so many, especially those who are still CBE members but live permanently here in Florida,” he said.
Especially significant, Shpeen added, are “the wonderful fellowship and community spirit the event evokes… and we are now having people attend whose parents and grandparents had attended years ago!” He reported  that in the past 15 years, the temple leadership has seen it as a priority, with the president and often other officers and board members typically attending. Current president Robyn Marinstein was there, he noted, along with “six past presidents, seven board members and 20 former board members.”

Shpeen was at the first Beth Emeth in Boca and explained how it all began. “For several years, when CBE members would ask me for a recommendation of where to go for temple while they wintered here in Florida in order to go to services or more importantly, to say Kaddish for a yahrzeit, I always recommended Temple Beth El in Boca because the rabbi then was Rabbi Merle Singer, who was one of my camp rabbis growing up … and I knew he would gladly read any names that I had asked and warmly welcomed our members.”

After a few years, Shpeen saw his friend at a convention, and Singer suggested that Shpeen come down for a Shabbat. The caterer at Beth El could prepare a Shabbat dinner for Beth Emeth members, he said, who would then join the Beth El congregation for services. The event drew nearly 90 people from Beth Emeth. “Afterwards, they all said, ‘Why do we need to be at another temple? Let’s do it on our own!’ And that is what we have been doing ever since,” Shpeen said.

Over the years, as the event has grown, it has changed in time and place. The first years it was on Friday night, Shpeen said, until people said the time was inconvenient, given the traffic and other difficulties. It became a Shabbat brunch, and then, in the last seven years, a Saturday night Havdalah, “At first it was at Deer Creek Country Club, then the Boca Raton Marriott and finally the Renaissance.

The only year the gathering was not held was 2021, the first year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, it was held outdoors on the hotel veranda, with 95 people attending.