ATLANTA, capital of the state of Georgia, U.S. General population of greater Atlanta: 4,400,000; Jewish population: 97,000. Atlanta was chartered in 1837 as Terminus and developed as an important transportation center. German Jews lived in the area starting in the early 1840s. The first Jew who lived in Atlanta was Jacob Haas; he opened a dry goods business with Henry Levi in 1846. Moses Sternberger, Adolph Brady, and David Mayer followed shortly as did Aaron Alexander and his family, who were American-born Sephardim from Charleston, South Carolina. The Hebrew Benevolent Society established in 1860 became the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in 1867. This occurred following a visit by Rev. Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, who came to conduct a wedding. Leeser was the ḥazzan of Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia in the middle of the 19th century. He established the monthly Occident newspaper in 1844 which became a major media vehicle for American Jewry. He stood for traditional Judaism as
Isaac Mayer *Wise
began to pioneer Reform Judaism in the U.S. Leeser urged the leadership to form an actual congregation which was incorporated that year. Later the synagogue came to be known as the "Temple." The first rabbi was appointed in 1869, and the first building was constructed in 1877. Although Reform from its inception, several of the rabbis in the late 1800s were more traditional, but with the arrival of Dr. David Marx in 1898, the character of the Temple became almost Radical Reform with even Sunday services substituted for Sabbath services from 1904 to 1908.
East Europeans emigrating in the late 1870s established several Orthodox congregations in the following decade. They merged into the Ahavath Achim synagogue in 1887. After several breakaway shuls were formed and then disappeared, the congregation built a synagogue in 1901. In 1896 a visitor from Palestine came to Atlanta to collect money to issue his new book. When it appeared in Jerusalem in 1898 as Ẓir Ne'eman, the author, Yehoshua Ze'ev Avner, listed the 18 Atlanta contributors, including the Moses Montefiore Relief Society and the Ahavath Achim congregation. The descendants of some of the contributors still lived in Atlanta in 2005. One of the early rabbis, Berachya Mayerowitz (1902–6), gave his sermons in English. He also led a major fundraising effort at the city's Bijou Theater for the survivors of the Kishniev pogrom in April 1903. On December 5–6, 1904, he welcomed Jacob deHaas, director of the Federation of American Zionists, on his boom trip of three weeks throughout the south. DeHaas characterized the members of the congregation as "muscular Jews committed to Zionism."
One of the breakaway Orthodox congregations in the early 20th century, Shearith Israel, was incorporated in 1904 and survived. Several others did not. In 1910 Rabbi
became the rabbi of the synagogue, which was seeking a rabbi with "outstanding learning credentials" and one whose "sermons could touch the hearts of the people." His 60-year career in Atlanta was a blend of Orthodoxy and modernism. His determination to raise the level of Jewish education succeeded when he and later his children personally taught in the Atlanta Jewish Preparatory School and Shearith Israel Sunday School. Nine Atlanta men and one Chattanooga individual, who boarded, became Orthodox and Conservative rabbis. In two areas, he was the authority not only for Atlanta but throughout the South. He was the mesader gittin, issuing Jewish divorces throughout his career, and he checked the shoḥetim in Atlanta and 15 other cities. In 1916 in Atlanta 48 Jewish families, who did not live in the "center of the Jewish community," petitioned Rabbi Geffen to permit a slaughterer of chickens to be available in their area, outside of his normal jurisdiction, once a week to do kosher killing at "five cents a chicken." Rabbi Geffen's most notable halakhic decision, giving a hekhsher to Coca-Cola, an Atlanta company, was made in 1934.
In 1919 Rabbi Tobias Geffen met with Bishop Warren Candler, chancellor of Emory, a Methodist college which had just moved to Atlanta from South Georgia. Geffen's concern about Saturday classes prompted Candler to permit observant Jewish students who attended Emory to be present on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays without having to take notes and stand for exams. (Rabbi)
were the first two Jewish students in this category. After a decade the Saturday classes ended, which resolved the issue.
The Jewish student body at Emory remained small until the 1950s. Professor
, who graduated from the Emory medical school in 1940, made aliyah in 1949 and established the surgical systems for all the major hospitals in Israel. In 1998 he was awarded the Israel Prize in Medicine. In the 1950s the number of Jewish students in all the Emory University schools was between 150 and 175. By the 1970s Emory's reputation was attracting Jewish students from the entire United States. Hillel statistics in the 1990s suggested that between 30 to 40% of the 5,500 undergraduates were Jewish. Parallel to the student growth was the faculty growth both in academic Judaica and general academia. Professor David Blumenthal was given the Jay and Leslie Cohen chair in Jewish Thought in 1976 when it was established. When the Carter Center came into being in the early 1980s, Professor Ken Stein, a Middle East specialist, was chosen as the academic director. In 2004 there were 12 full-time faculty members teaching in all areas of Judaica. The Dorot Professor of Jewish History is the noted Holocaust specialist, Deborah Lipstadt. A masters program in Jewish Studies exists and a doctoral program was being planned. When
of Home Depot gave Emory a major gift, the department was given Blank's spiritual leader's name, Rabbi Donald Tam Jewish Studies Department.
In addition to the thousands of new Judaic volumes in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, and many other languages purchased by the Woodruff Library of Emory in the last 25 years, the Special Collections department under the leadership of Dr. Linda Matthews, now head of all libraries at the school, began to receive diverse collections of Jewish interest. The Rabbi Jacob Rothschild papers, Holocaust collections from various sources, the Elliot Levitas papers (Rhodes Scholar and Georgia congressman), the Morris Abrams papers, the Geffen papers, and numerous other collections are all in Emory's Special Collections. Nineteenth century Judaica Americana has both been donated and purchased.
Atlanta's earliest Jews were mostly merchants. Some, primarily members of the Temple, were active in such fields as banking, brokerage, insurance, and real estate and pioneered in the manufacture of paper products and cotton bagging. The East European Jews had small stores, and a large number were pawnbrokers on Decatur Street in the heart of the city. Throughout the 1920s, Jewish lawyers and physicians were not allowed to join most law firms and could only practice at certain hospitals. Prior to World War II those barriers were broken down, and the number of Jewish professionals increased dramatically. The main department store in the city, founded in 1884, was Rich's until it was purchased by a conglomerate in 1991. In 2005 the name Rich's disappeared completely from
the store's nomenclature. Starting with its arrival in Atlanta in 1987, the Home Depot became the major Jewish-owned firm in the city.
Jews have held public office in Atlanta since the post-Civil War era. Samuel Weil and Lewis Arnheim served in the Georgia legislature in 1869 and 1872. Aaron Haas became the city's mayor pro tem in 1875. Victor Kriegshaber was president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce from 1917 until 1922. A founding member of the Atlanta Board of Education, David Mayer, was known as the "father of public schools." In the 1930s Max Cuba, Charles Bergman, and Louis Geffen served on the Atlanta City Council and Board of Education. After being a vice mayor of Atlanta from 1961 to 1968,
Sam *Massell Jr.
ran for mayor against the candidate of the Atlanta power structure, labeled as antisemitic in the course of the campaign. He won the election with 20% of the white vote and 90% of the black vote. After a very successful four-year term, Massell lost to Maynard Jackson, the first black to be elected mayor of the city.
Elliot Levitas was elected to Congress for four terms, the first Jew from Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives. Liane Levitan was the County Commissioner of DeKalb County for 20 years (1983–2003). The major electoral change in the Atlanta area was in Cobb County. There in 1915
was lynched by vigilantes in the town of Marietta near the home of the young white Protestant girl whom he was convicted of murdering by circumstantial evidence. Few Jews lived in Marietta and Cobb County until the 1980s. In 2000 Sam Olens, an attorney and active Conservative Jew, was elected chairman of the Cobb County Council. After his reelection in 2004, he was chosen chairperson of the Atlanta Regional Planning Board. Two other Marietta Jews were elected as judges in the county judicial system and statewide to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Dr. David Marx (1872–1962) was rabbi of the Temple for 52 years. A leader in interfaith activities, Marx was extremely anti-Zionist, helping to found the American Council for Judaism. In 1945 his Yom Kippur sermon was a "tirade against the establishment of a Jewish state." He was challenged publicly by one of his own members, Albert Freedman, director of the Southeastern Region of the Zionist Organization of America. When
Dr. Jacob *Rothschild
succeeded Marx in 1947, he brought a deep commitment to social justice and also became a Zionist advocate. Rothschild was so outspoken for the civil rights of blacks that in 1958 the Temple was bombed, fortunately when no one was in the building. From the Atlanta mayor to the Georgia governor to President Eisenhower, strong support poured out against the perpetrators of this act. Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution and a visitor to Palestine and Israel in 1946 and 1950, won a Pulitzer Prize for his moving editorials condemning the bombing. In the 1960s Rothschild worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as new federal legislation was passed assuring American blacks their rights. When King was awarded the Nobel Prize, Rothschild organized the dinner in King's honor in Atlanta. Rothschild died a very young man and was succeeded by his associate Dr. Alvin Sugarman, an Atlanta native. Sugarman took the lead in the Atlanta Jewish community in regard to developing closer relations between the blacks and the Jews. The Rich's store, whose owners belonged to the Temple, was the first major Atlanta store to allow its cafeteria to be integrated. Many Jewish firms hired blacks for administrative positions prior to such hiring becoming widespread in the general community. The Anti-Defamation League's southeast region office in Atlanta and the American Jewish Committee's regional office worked diligently to aid blacks in court and through demonstrations. The changing attitude of the blacks toward American Jews was influenced by funding from Muslim groups and anti-Israel propaganda, which reached deeply into the South in general and Atlanta in particular.
From 1928 until 1982
Dr. Harry *Epstein
served as the rabbi of Ahavath Achim. Ordained at the Hebron Yeshiva in 1925, where his brother was killed in the 1929 riots, Epstein possessed all the training necessary to be an Orthodox rabbi but chose to move his congregation into the Conservative movement after World War II. A marvelous orator in English and Yiddish, Epstein was the key Zionist leader in Atlanta and attended national conferences in major American cities where the foundation of the State of Israel was forged during World War II. He and Rothschild traveled to Israel together in 1950. On their return, they co-chaired the annual Welfare Fund Drive. In 1953 Epstein joined the Rabbinical Assembly and brought his congregation into the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He was most adept at training individuals to be communal and synagogue leaders. Once he moved his synagogue to the Northside of the city where most of his members lived, the congregation grew to over 2,000 families. From 1971 until 1995, Cantor Isaac Goodfriend, a Holocaust survivor, served as the cantor of Ahavath Achim. Goodfriend developed a full-scale music program at Ahavath Achim. In addition he became a community leader in his own right. He campaigned throughout the United States in 1976 for President Jimmy Carter, and he was asked to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Inauguration in Washington. Once elected, Carter appointed
his domestic policy advisor and attorney Robert Lifshitz, as White House counsel. Eizenstat played a major role in the legislation for the Holocaust Memorial in Washington and Cantor Goodfriend served on the first Holocaust Memorial Commission. Lifshitz was a significant figure in the negotiations between Menahem Begin and Anwar Sadat, which led to the Camp David agreements in 1979.
Epstein was succeeded by Dr. Arnold Goodman, who led Ahavath Achim for the last 20 years of the 20th century. He taught at one of the black colleges in Atlanta and was an outspoken advocate for Israel.
In the period just after World War II the only synagogue facility available on the north side of Atlanta was the educational building of Ahavath Achim. A group of Orthodox Jews established in 1947 a small congregation, Beth Jacob, on
Boulevard in that area. There was no way of predicting how this synagogue would change the Jewish character of Atlanta. In 1951 Dr. Emanuel Feldman came from the Ner Israel Ye-shiva in Baltimore to be Beth Jacob's rabbi. His commitment to Orthodoxy helped develop the congregation into the first of a string of Orthodox congregations and day schools. This growth coincided both with the
movement in Judaism and the evangelical revival in American Christianity. Feldman was an outstanding speaker, had the knowledge to give shi'urim, and had a very fine secular education. Once Beth Jacob moved to the Toco Hills area near Emory University, Rabbi Feldman was able to build a community of Sabbath observers, many of whom taught at the university and worked at what is now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His experience as a congregational rabbi was so successful that he wrote a "love letter to his congregation," a rare document in the American Jewish rabbinate. His son Ilan Feldman succeeded him as rabbi in 1995, and Rabbi Emanuel Feldman and his wife moved to Jerusalem.
The Sephardi congregation, Or VeShalom, was founded in 1914. The majority of the early Sephardi Jews in Atlanta, who arrived in the first decade of the 20th century, were from Rhodes. Rabbi Joseph Cohen, a Hebraic scholar and a sofer, was the spiritual leader of the congregation from the mid-1930s until 1973. Under his leadership the synagogue built a new building in the Toco Hills area in 1968.
In 1904 the Reform and Orthodox Jews formed the YMHA. By 1908 it had become the Jewish Educational Alliance, and by 1911 a building was completed on Capitol Avenue. In 1954 the Alliance moved to Peachtree Street as the Jewish Community Center. As the Jewish community began to grow beyond the perimeter highway, a satellite facility of the JCC was built in 1979 in the Dunwoody area. Then the community in Cobb County expanded into a new center of Jewish life, and another satellite facility of the JCC was constructed in Marietta in 1989. Because the JCC locale in Dunwoody had major acreage, the leadership decided to sell the intown facility and build a new campus. In 1995 the JCC and adjacent Federation facilities were closed. The campus in Dunwoody was named for Bernard Marcus, who gave a major gift to the $60 million capital campaign. In the early years of the 21st century the JCC grew from 10,000 units to over 26,000 units. At the Marcus JCC campus programming is provided for all ages with athletic facilities, a professional theater, a children's discovery museum, and a kosher cafeteria.
Two organizations, the Moses Montefiore Relief Society (1896) and the Free Kindergarten and Social Settlement (1903), merged into the Federation of Jewish Charities in 1912. In 1924 the Jewish Social Services evolved out of the Federation. In 1928 Ed Kahn came to Atlanta as the head of Social Services. Then in 1936 Harold Hirsch, a noted leader in the Jewish and Atlanta legal community, pioneered the establishment of the Jewish Welfare Fund for combined fundraising, headed by Ed Kahn until 1960. He was succeeded by Mike Gettinger, an Orthodox Jew who broadened the scope of the Federation and brought in major donors from different sectors of the community. Gettinger was followed by David Sarnat, who took over in 1984.
At the end of 1984 the Metropolitan Atlanta Jewish Population Study pointed to the growth of the Jewish population from 9,630 at the end of World War II to 59,084. Affiliation with synagogues had dropped from 90% in 1947 to 44% in 1984. The key to the future of Atlanta Jewry lay in the fact that a quarter of the population were 18 and below; 22% were in the 30–39 age bracket and only 12.6% were above 60. The Jews had moved, according to the study, to suburban areas north of Atlanta in Gwinett and Cobb counties. Because of the needs of youth and younger parents, five synagogues had been formed in these counties. In total there were 15 synagogues in the Atlanta area in 1984. In 2005 there were 34 synagogues in the Greater Atlanta area; six of which were Chabad, six Orthodox, one Gay, and the rest Reform and Conservative. In the 1984 study number 23 on the priority agenda for community needs were Jewish educational programs. Once that became known to the Federation leadership changes began to occur.
In 1985 the Torah Day School joined the Greenfield Academy (1953), Yeshiva High School (1970), and Epstein Solomon Schechter School (1973). Since then the Davis Academy (Reform) (1992), Temima Girls High School (1996), Weber Community High School (1997), and Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael (2002) have been established. There is a Tichon Communal High School for all students who are graduates of elementary day school programs and congregational religious schools. There are active Jewish educational programs at all 34 synagogues as well as afternoon Hebrew schools and Sunday schools in some congregations. The Jewish Community Center has many Jewish educational programs and lectures including the largest Melton program in the United States.
In November 1983 the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations was held in Atlanta. Featured at the newly opened Schatten Gallery in the Woodruff Library at Emory University was an exhibit on the history of Georgia Jewry from 1733 to 1983. That exhibit proved to be a key step in the founding of the Breman Jewish Museum. The Museum and Archives were established in 1996 after a major exhibit on Atlanta Jewry at the Atlanta History Center's new annex. The Breman Museum has two permanent displays: one on the Holocaust and the other on Atlanta Jewry. The Museum has been quite active, and new exhibits have been created just for display. Other traveling exhibits have also been shown at the Museum. As an archival center, the Breman Museum has major collections on Atlanta Jews and communal institutions. In addition archival material from various parts of the South is now being housed at the Museum.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta acquired its new name in 1997. Since that time the Federation's professional leadership went from David Sarnat to Steve Rakkitt. The endowment program of the Federation now contains over $125 million. The Federation is the major initiator of programs for the Jewish community, although it does not provide any grants
for synagogue programs. The Federation has seen a major age change in the Jewish community, so in 1998 a new Jewish Home was constructed on the campus where the older Jewish Home stood and the Jewish Tower. The Jewish Home built in 1975 was renovated and became an assisted living facility. The campus gives senior citizens the opportunity to move from one facility to the other as per their needs.
The entrepreneurial skills of Atlanta Jewish merchants were evident in the Dalton Carpet Mart Centers, Home Depot, and dot.com startup companies. The heads of these companies, Nate Lipson,
, and Bernard Marcus, have become major donors in the community. Arthur Blank purchased the Atlanta Falcons Professional Football team; Bernard Marcus was building a $250 million Aquarium in the center of Atlanta. Many other communal projects are under Jewish leadership.
When Atlanta won the right to host the Summer Olympics in 1996, the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta allied itself with the Southeastern Office of the Israel Consul based in Atlanta to ensure that during the Games the martyred Munich 11 were remembered. Negotiations occurred for several years, and the Olympics Board was trying to avoid this public type of memorial. Steve Selig, at the time of the Olympics in 1996, worked incessantly until the breakthrough occurred. On the site of the Federation Offices, the Selig Center, there was a public dedication of a memorial to the Munich 11. The international president of the Modern Olympics participated in the moving event along with the families of the Munich martyrs who came from Israel to be at the Games and a very large group of Jewish Olympians from all over the world.
Atlanta has always had Anglo-Jewish papers from early in its history. There were four different English papers and one in Yiddish prior to World War I. In 1925 the Southern Israelite moved from Augusta to Atlanta and became the only weekly southern Jewish paper aside from the Baltimore Jewish Comment, which became the current Baltimore Jewish Times. The Southern Israelite, now the Atlanta Jewish Times, had three notable editors: Adolph Rosenberg, Vida Goldgar, and Neil Rubin. In the early 21st century the paper was owned by Jewish Renaissance Publications headed by Michael Steinhardt.
A writer and a playwright have helped to enlighten the American Jewish community and the world Jewish community about Atlanta Jewry. Eli Evans published The Provincials in 1973, the first book on the Jews in the South. The popularity of the book has kept it in print since then. The revised edition has several illuminating chapters on Atlanta Jewry through the year 2000. The playwright Alfred Uhry made Atlanta Jewry come to life in his award-winning play Driving Miss Daisy. Uhry captures the spirit of the Atlanta Temple crowd through the interaction of Miss Daisy and her chauffeur Hoke. The play has been produced in many languages and was an Oscar award-winning movie with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Alfred Uhry has donated his papers to Special Collections at Emory University.