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 in Sandy Springs, is among the fastest-growing synagogues in Atlanta, with a membership of about 640 family units, representing about 1,150 adults 24 and older and about 520 children under 18.
The turning point in the growth of the 28-year-old congregation came in 2004 when it affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. B’nai Torah had been a traditional, unaffiliated congregation.
“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 congregation’s executive director. He said that decision spurred a significant increase in membership.
The same 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 under Rabbi Heller’s leadership.”
Under Heller, B’nai Torah’s membership has increased 50 percent, adding about 220 families in four years.
That growth led the synagogue to decide Heller needed help, and it recently hired Eytan Kenter for the new position of assistant rabbi.
“Once a congregation gets beyond 500 members, it’s really time to seriously start thinking about a second clergyperson,” Kaye said.
Kenter will begin at B’nai Torah on July 1.
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 synagogue’s expanding membership largely to its central location for the Jewish community and to the growth of Sandy Springs as a city.
Although most of the synagogue’s members live in Sandy Springs or Dunwoody, others come from Brookhaven, East Cobb, Roswell and Alpharetta.
The inviting atmosphere 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 inviting approach goes beyond the congregation. B’nai Torah has played host to many 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 young synagogue board member and Atlanta native who specializes in social action at B’nai Torah, joined the congregation about eight years ago after living in New York.
“It was an easy transition … to this synagogue 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 in an early phase of considering a building expansion. Congregation President Fred Chaiken said the synagogue is working with a consulting firm to determine whether it can raise enough money for an expansion.
“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 an expansion eventually will be necessary. “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 a few small-scale changes to better accommodate its members. The chapel was converted into a movable seating 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, because of limited space for all members, 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 received assistance from neighboring First Baptist Church of Sandy Springs, which has allowed B’nai Torah members to use its parking lot and has made some of its facility available for overflow services on the High Holidays.
Additionally, B’nai Torah has access to a house on the property next to it. The owners are friends of the synagogue and allow the site to be used 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,” he said. “We want to encourage people to be at the synagogue that’s going to feel right for them socially and religiously.”
B’nai Torah’s members and leaders are confident their congregation will continue to feel right for a growing number of local Jews.
“This is the beginning of a new chapter for B’nai Torah,” Kaye said.