The Secret History of Christmas at Mar-a-Lago, an Unlikely (and Increasingly Uncomfortable) Oasis for the Palm Beach Jewish Community

When Donald Trump walks out on the veranda at Mar-a-Lago to sit down for dinner at his favorite table—if he ever makes it out of Washington, that is—he will be joining a room that is full of many people of Jewish faith. That is one of the most extraordinary facts about Mar-a-Lago, and it is a result of one of the most positive endeavors of the president’s life. It’s also made life at the club increasingly complex.

Back in the mid-90s, when Trump opened Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach was a very different place. I know from my own experience. It was around this same time that my wife and I purchased our condominium on the island, a place I hoped would give me the solitude I needed to write. But from our first day on South Ocean Boulevard, we were ostracized. When we had a problem in our apartment and had to talk to board members, they refused to sit down in our living room but stood looking disdainfully at us. The experience was so painful that we discussed whether we should sell. In the end, we surmised, we were mistreated because the board members thought I was Jewish. (I’m actually a fallen Methodist. My wife is Russian Orthodox.)

When December rolled around, we purchased a Christmas tree, bringing it up to our apartment in the service elevator. As we did, a number of other owners were standing at the elevators dressed in black tie, presumably on their way to dinner parties at the Everglades Club and Bath and Tennis Club, which then dominated elite social life in Palm Beach, and were viewed as inhospitable to Jews. As we struggled with our enormous tree, they seemed to decide that maybe they had been wrong. Maybe we weren’t Jewish. Our building didn’t have a formal, written policy prohibiting Jewish owners, but when Jewish or gay potential buyers appeared, many were often persuaded to look elsewhere.

Fortunately, I must say that things have changed in our building. I’ve been on the board for over a decade and we have many Jewish and gay owners these days and it’s a far more congenial building than when we arrived. But this revolting culture of anti-Semitism pervaded the island. It also created an unlikely business opportunity for a young Trump. After all, Trump loved Mar-a-Lago like nothing else in his life, and in the early 90s, as his empire collapsed around him, he desperately sought some way to save the heavily mortgaged estate. Paul Rampell, a young Palm Beach lawyer, convinced Trump to start a club that was open to anyone. There were five major clubs on the island, and four of them effectively didn’t admit Jews. Nothing was formally written about this in the bylaws. It was a gentleman’s agreement. The result was if Trump opened a club, he would have many Jewish members.

The anti-Semitism on the island was an overwhelming social reality. Rampell’s brother Richard, like him a Princeton graduate, was a local accountant. One day in 1990, Richard Rampell’s son returned from the preschool he attended in Palm Beach with 19 other children. One of them had a birthday party at the Bath & Tennis. All the children were invited except for the three who happened to be Jewish. Something snapped within the youthful accountant. “When your own child becomes a victim, it awakens emotions you never knew you had,” he told the Palm Beach Daily News on May 16, 1993. In that moment, Richard Rampell became an activist working first to end discrimination at the Sailfish Club, a popular club not far from his home in the North End. He had applied for membership in 1986, but never even got a response.

The Sailfish Club marina rests on submerged land leased from the state of Florida. That was the hook that Richard Rampell and his fellow activists used to force the club to end a discriminatory policy against Jews and blacks as old as the club’s 71-year history. (The club claimed at the time to have some Jewish members but conceded having no black members.) Richard Rampell’s public statements made a number of Jews on the island nervous. They feared that this whole embarrassing matter was escalating to a point that it would mean nothing but trouble for them and their children. Their worries were so intense that Richard wrote a letter to the Palm Beach Daily News: “Some Jewish parents feel that public statements will create an even more severe backlash against their children by vengeful reactionaries. Children were being hurt long before I said anything to any reporter,” he told the paper. “A smoldering, simmering resentment has been building up for years. I simply verbalized it (although I regret I caused discomfort to my family and friends). I am one tiny voice, which has recently grown a little stronger. Maybe this voice will become a roar, eventually enveloping even the cautious, timid and hesitant.”

No one called Mar-a-Lago a Jewish club, but especially in the early years, that’s what it was. When Trump ran for president, I wrote a post on Facebook arguing that while Trump, despite the feelings espoused by members of his base, wasn’t himself anti-Semitic. Yes, he had unapologetically issued an anti-Semitic tweet about Hillary Clinton, but he had opened doors for Jews when they were otherwise closed. I wondered if this was rooted in his personal experience. The private school that he attended as a kid was half-Jewish. His family vacationed in the traditionally Jewish Catskills in resorts. His daughter, Ivanka, has converted, and three of his grandchildren are Jewish.

Soon after I published the post, however, all hell broke loose as scores of people responded, a number of them accusing me of anti-Semitism for defending the despicable candidate. It got so bad that a Jewish friend of mine, a top banker, called and implored me to take the post down. Flummoxed, I agreed, even though I still stood by what I said, and I presumed that many of the Jewish members of Mar-a-Lago would agree.

Trump’s election undeniably put many Jewish members of Mar-a-Lago in a quandary. They owed Trump a debt of gratitude for creating the kind of institution he did. For a time, it took a certain chutzpah for them even to buy homes in the town; easier by far to buy just south, in Boca Raton, in communities that were overwhelmingly Jewish and welcoming to anyone. A few people may have hemmed and hawed about leaving the club and losing their large membership fees in the process, but most had no such doubts. Then came Charlottesville, and hundreds of neo-Fascist demonstrators marching through the streets carrying flaming torches and shouting “Jews will not replace us.” Unimaginably, Trump equated these neo-Nazis with the progressive protesters. As far as Trump was concerned, there were good people on both sides. That outraged many people in the club and led to over 20 organizations pulling their events from Mar-a-Lago.

From then on, there was an unease among many Jewish members about just what they had gotten involved with here at Mar-a-Lago. I have Jewish friends at Mar-a-Lago who feel that this is a controversy that shouldn’t be. To them, the club is just a club—a place beyond politics. (Would a Democrat not enjoy an opera at Lincoln Center, pray tell, because a building is adorned with Charles Koch’s name?) But many others are anguished over just what to do. They enjoy their membership but they worry that their continuing association with Trump will evolve into a blemish upon their family name that cannot be removed. A few of them quit.

One of them was Murray Fox, with whom I played tennis a number of times on Mar-a-Lago’s red clay courts. A number of years ago, Fox suggested a number of modest improvements at the tennis facilities. This so outraged Trump that he tossed him out of the club. It took a lawsuit (https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-21892267.html) for him to get back in. Despite the legal bills and Fox’s joyful pursuit of tennis, a few months ago he decided he no longer could have anything to do with Trump and he left Mar-a-Lago for good, even though it meant he lost his membership fee. Others are anguished over what it means to be a Jewish member of Mar-a-Lago, and are likely considering following Fox out of the club.

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