ATLANTA, Georgia - Before there was Dunwoody, Sandy Springs or Alpharetta, there was Washington Street and a small area in the heart of downtown Atlanta where Jews lived, worked and prayed.
The lure of bigger houses, better schools and open spaces changed all of that in the years following World War II as Atlanta’s Jews began establishing themselves and their synagogues in the city’s northern suburbs.
But some Jews never left the city and more are now returning - exhausted by long commutes in crawling traffic, or in search of a different lifestyle. And many Jewish newcomers to Atlanta are choosing to plant themselves intown instead of suburbia; the federation will release the results of a formal survey later this year, but all the evidence points to what many observers see as a remarkable resurgence of activity and momentum inside the Perimeter.
“Intown Jewish life is very, very vibrant,” said Roseanne Schulman, a real estate agent and founding member of a new intown congregation, Shaarei Shamayim.
What’s more, many parts of intown’s growing Jewish population are still hoping for their own brick-and-mortar community center.
“The ultimate goal is that we want a real-life facility with walls in this city. We make no bones about it,” said Nancy Habif, who has put considerable time into lobbying for an intown Jewish community center.
What’s so striking about the complexion of intown Jewish life, noted Libby Hertz, Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s director of intown programming (J in the City), is its diversity.
“There’s such a big mix intown,” she said. Unlike north metro, for example, where last year the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta completed a study showing a predominance of families with young children, intown is comprised of singles, families with young kids and teens and empty-nesters right along with the elderly.
Agencies and synagogues are stepping up to meet the needs of the entire field of this population with programs and services that range from the new, fully enrolled, preschool at The Temple in midtown to the so-called NORC project, which helps seniors age in their own homes in Toco Hills under the direction of the federation and Jewish Family and Career Services.
Meet the Liebermans
Over the last three years, J in the City has introduced a variety of options for the intown community, which lost the Peachtree Street JCC in 1999 when the community center moved its main facility and offices to the Zaban Park campus in Dunwoody.
The husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth and Ron Lieberman has worked with Hertz for the last two years as co-chairs of J in the City. The couple, who moved to Atlanta five years ago from Chicago, has two children (Isaac, 2, and Eli, 5), and live in midtown in a vintage early 1900s home on 9th Street. Piedmont Park, says Elizabeth, “is in our backyard.” And Ron, a partner with the law firm of Hunton and Williams, works a mile away.
“We were sad to leave (Chicago) because we like the city feel,” said Elizabeth, 37. She and her husband chose to live in the city, she said, because “we wanted to be able to walk to the park, a restaurant or movie theater. On the weekends in Chicago, we never drove."
Sports and parties
Partnering with Torah Day School, which has athletic fields and a gym, J in the City started with sports to fill what Hertz said was an “obvious gap” intown. That was an understatement - a youth soccer league expected to enroll about 30 children its first season drew 90 right away. Now it has several hundred. And a men’s basketball league drew enough interest to form an eight-team league the first season.
Young Eli Lieberman plays soccer and tee-ball through the program, and his father Ron thinks the collaboration with Torah Day is a great success on another level.
“Our partnership with Torah Day is something we’re particularly proud of,” he said. “We’re looking to strengthen the bonds of the Jewish community. The integration of the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox is really enlightening and fun.”
A new intown JCC?
Capitol Street was the address of Atlanta’s first Jewish community center, which was founded in 1910 as a so-called resettlement house to help new immigrants, according to Breman Museum archivist Sandra Berman. Then, for 53 years, starting in 1946, the Atlanta Jewish Community Center was located on Peachtree Street in Brookwood, where a new building was constructed in 1956.
But the facility closed six years ago after the decision was made to build the JCC’s flagship campus in Dunwoody at Zaban Park, which had a small facility on the site. The new campus, totaling 150,000 square feet, opened in June 2000 as the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.
Many Jewish intowners say they don’t use the Dunwoody JCC on a regular basis, if at all, because of distance. And they fervently want a community center in their own neighborhood.
“We still very much need and deserve Jewish educational and recreational and communal structures within the perimeter,” said Jeffrey Salkin, senior rabbi of The Temple and himself an intown resident. He added that a perusal of The Temple’s membership roster would demonstrate that Jews “have not abandoned” intown Atlanta.
“Atlanta may not be Jerusalem, but it will be rebuilt,” said Salkin.
Still, the ultimate goal remains bricks and mortar for many intowners.
“We don’t want to be a model without walls,” said Elizabeth Lieberman. “We’re working toward an intown facility. We really want that.”
For his part, federation CEO Steven A. Rakitt said: “We have an absolute commitment to the Jewish community intown. We are exploring a number of exciting possibilities in close cooperation with the (JCC).”
Elizabeth Lieberman believes that an intown center would likely be a different model from the JCC’s Zaban Park and Shirley Blumenthal campuses
For starters, it probably wouldn’t be as big, she said. To help sustain it over the long term, Lieberman added, it might need retail or even residential components. Because intown land is so expensive, a new center might even have to be a multi-level building.
Congregations of all sizes and denominations, including Atlanta’s oldest and largest, can all be found inside the perimeter. And many of those are undergoing a renaissance as well.
Ahavath Achim, for example, launched the “It’s a New Day at AA” campaign last year. After some time searching for a new senior rabbi, the shul is settling down with Rabbi Neil Sandler, 49, who is just completing his first year.
“He’s doing extremely well. The congregation is very pleased with him,” said Gold, adding: “I see a very vibrant, exciting community intown that we are working very hard to attract and interact with.”
At The Temple, Salkin, who is finishing his second year at the 1,400-member Reform congregation, has energized the place on Saturday mornings like never before with Torah study, according to congregants. Salkin says just eight people showed up when he first began the study sessions in August 2003. Now, more than 60 usually attend.
“We attract people young, old, Jewish, non-Jewish, black and white, who faithfully study with us,” said Salkin.
And, in a serious commitment to its midtown location, The Temple recently completed a $20 million addition that included a new social hall, preschool facilities, new chapel and a restoration of its historic 60-year-old sanctuary.
Intown is also home to shuls like Shearith Israel in Morningside, which just celebrated its centennial year; and Or VeShalom, the Sephardic shul not far for from Lenox Square. Or Ve Shalom seems to have found a good fit in Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla after a long search. Even little Anshe S’fard in Virginia Highlands, which has been around for nearly 100 years, is aiming to attract young members who are committed to Orthodox Judaism through community Shabbat dinners.
The Toco Hills Orthodox corridor, meanwhile, continues to thrive, as well. Its main street, La Vista Road, is home to the big congregation, Beth Jacob, plus several others (Ner Hamizrach and nearby Netzach Israel) and Young Israel, a growing Modern Orthodox congregation. Three Orthodox schools, including Torah Day School’s new state-of-the art facility, are part of this neighborhood.
And down the road in Decatur, Reconstructionist Congregation Bet Haverim, first founded for gay Jews, continues to be the quintessential picture of intown diversity under Rabbi Joshua Lesser.
Fast growth and big dreams are resulting in a new building for Shaarei Shamayim, a Traditional synagogue that spun off from Shearith Israel three years ago. Land is already cleared on the property along North Druid Hills Road near a Target outlet.
As a real estate agent, Schulman has observed firsthand the renewed interest in close-in living. What’s amazing, she said, is that young families and retirees alike are coming back intown.
“People have come back in, renovated homes and built new ones,” she said, adding that she’s noticed that Emory graduates who remain in Atlanta tend to stay close in.
Reprinted by permission of The Jewish Times, Atlanta, Georgia