By Gerhard Schneibel
Temple Sinai marked 40 years of existence Feb. 22 and is celebrating the occasion with activities, reflection and remembrance at its Dupree Drive location in Sandy Springs.
A gala celebration is scheduled for March 28, but this year there have already been three Sabbath services honoring anyone who was ever a teacher at Temple Sinai, was married at the Reform Jewish synagogue or served on its board. Members of Temple Sinai also wrote a Torah together.
Dinner and dancing are planned for gala, along with a disc jockey and classical guitar played in a coffeehouse environment. An online auction associated with the anniversary includes such items as a long weekend getaway at Ponte Verda Beach, Fla., a swim with the “gentle giants of the Georgia Aquarium,” and a “weekend of luxury” at The Mansion on Peachtree.
Cindy Gibbs, a longtime member of the congregation, has been instrumental in planning the event. She said the temple has changed dramatically over the decades and that, while she has been an empty-nester since her two sons grew up, it is important to keep young families involved.
“That’s the pulse, that’s the future of the congregation that I think is so important,” she said. “I think we need to keep cultivating that but at the same time also making sure for the empty-nesters and the seniors that there’s always a place for them.”
When the temple was founded as the New Northside Congregation in 1968, its membership was capped at 400 families, in part because its founders were cautious not to disrupt the memberships of congregations around them.
Still, the new congregation marked the start of a dramatic expansion in the number of Atlanta-area synagogues as part of a movement into the suburbs. Temple Sinai was the metro area’s first Jewish congregation north of Buckhead.
Jim Smulian was one of the original members, along with Dr. Alfred Messer, and said the founding of the New Northside Congregation “opened up a Pandora’s Box for new Jewish institutions.”
Smulian said he and Messer, who has died, decided a new congregation was needed because they wanted a more traditional experience for their sons.
They called a meeting with representatives from other Jewish institutions in Atlanta to discuss their plans, and “everybody was positive about doing it,” Smulian said.
“We didn’t go after anybody who was already a member,” he said. “We went to the Jewish Federation and got a list of Jewish families in the area who were not connected to any synagogue. Many of them joined.”
Temple Sinai’s initial membership was 145 families under the leadership of Rabbi Richard Lehrman. Before the current building opened in 1973, the congregation met in schools and churches.
Lehrman “really was the key to it,” Smulian said. “We called him the Pied Piper. He was a young man — I think he was in his 20s then — and he was very interested in putting his own feeling into a new house of worship.”
Rabbi Phil Kranz led the congregation through the 1980s and 1990s and into the 21st century, retiring in 2006.
Rabbi Ron Segal, who became Temple Sinai’s third senior rabbi when Kranz retired, said there is something “wonderfully symbolic” about a 40th anniversary.
“The number 40 in our tradition is certainly significant in that we go back to the Torah, and we think of the ancestors who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and then they came to the Promised Land,” he said. “We’ve honored 40 years of life in our community, so personally I think this is a momentous time.”
Segal has been with Temple Sinai since 1996, a period when the congregation has grown from 625 families to 1,250 families. The synagogue has two other rabbis, Brad Levenberg, who arrived in 2006, and Elana Perry, who started in 2007.
“I think that our congregation continues to be more and more inclusive and welcoming each and every year that we are in existence,” Segal said. “When you ask our members what defines our congregation, the answers that are most frequently repeated are a wonderful sense of warmth and welcome. There’s not a real sense of hierarchy here. It’s a real, egalitarian community, and anyone can come in and get involved and participate to their heart’s desire.”