By Michaela Kron
When Congregation B’nai Torah was founded in 1981, its membership consisted of 125 families who met at a closed grammar school in Sandy Springs until 1984, then in trailers for two years until a permanent facility was built.
Today, B’nai Torah (www.bnaitorah.org), at 700 Mount Vernon Highway, is among the area’s fastest-growing synagogues, with about 640 family units, representing about 1,150 adults 24 and older and 520 children under 18.
A turning point came in 2004 when the traditional, unaffiliated congregation aligned with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
“Strategically, we felt that in order to attract the quality of rabbinic leadership that would be appropriate for the future, it was in the synagogue’s interest to join the Conservative movement,” said Donald Kaye, the executive director.
The year the synagogue affiliated, it hired a 31-year-old Conservative rabbi, Joshua Heller, as its spiritual leader.
“Since Rabbi Heller has come to Atlanta, the buzz has all been about B’nai Torah,” Kaye said. “Rabbi Heller has simply been superbly successful in attracting young families, middle-aged families, older families. We have become a very vibrant congregation.”
B’nai Torah has added about 220 families in four years, a 50 percent rise.
That growth led the synagogue to decide Heller needed help, and it recently hired its first assistant rabbi, Eytan Kenter, who starts July 1.
“Once a congregation gets beyond 500 members, it’s really time to seriously start thinking about a second clergyperson,” Kaye said.
Heller said couples in their 20s and 30s with younger children have accounted for a fair amount of B’nai Torah’s growth, but he attributes the expanding membership largely to a central location for the Jewish community and to the growth of Sandy Springs as a city.
Though most members live in Sandy Springs or Dunwoody, others come from Brookhaven, East Cobb, Roswell and Alpharetta.
The inviting feel of B’nai Torah also has been important, Heller said. “We try to create an atmosphere where people feel like they’ve been welcomed and they might want to come back.”
That approach goes beyond the congregation. B’nai Torah has hosted communal gatherings of Atlanta’s Conservative synagogues, as well as provided a meeting place for such organizations as the Hebrew Order of David, Jewish National Fund and Atlanta Scholars Kollel.
Rachel Pomerance, a synagogue board member and Atlanta native, joined about eight years ago after living in New York.
“It was an easy transition … because Rabbi Heller was sort of a colleague,” Pomerance said. “He and his wife are my contemporaries.”
B’nai Torah has taken steps to accommodate its increasing numbers and is considering a building expansion. Congregation President Fred Chaiken said consultants are helping determine whether it can raise the money.
“It’s a pretty broad expansion project that would substantially increase the square footage of our campus,” he said. “If we go forward, it might have to be done in stages.”
Heller said, “There will come a point where we won’t be able to take more members without expanding our facility.”
In the meantime, B’nai Torah has made small-scale changes. The chapel was converted into a movable space when its fixed pews were removed, and it is now used as a classroom, a meeting room and a place for daily prayer.
Last year, the synagogue conducted a second shift of services for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year’s Day, and will do so again this year.
The synagogue has help from neighboring First Baptist Church of Sandy Springs, which allows B’nai Torah members to use its parking lot and makes some of its facility available for overflow services on the High Holidays.
B’nai Torah also has access to a house on a next-door property as a youth facility.
Still, “the largest synagogue in Sandy Springs is actually none of the above,” Heller said. “Most Jews are not members of synagogues, so the fact is, there’s a lot of work to do helping Jews find the synagogue that’s right for them.”
B’nai Torah’s members and leaders are confident the congregation will continue to feel right for a growing number. Kaye said, “This is the beginning of a new chapter for B’nai Torah.”