Bobby Ezor remembers why he joined the Ahavath Achim Synagogue 34 years ago.
“They offered us a free membership if we married there,” the Buckhead lawyer recalled. “We’ve been members ever since.”
This month, Ezor repays his debt. He has assembled a documentary film, titled “Reunion, Renewal, Ruach,” that will serve as the centerpiece of a celebration of the Buckhead-based congregation’s 125th anniversary and its contributions to metro Atlanta and its Jewish community.
“I’ve been here for a relatively short time,” Ezor said over lunch at a Buckhead sandwich shop recently, “but I came to realize this place has touched this community in more ways than you can imagine.”
The congregation, known to many simply by its initials, “A.A,” once was among the largest Jewish congregations in the country, members say, and it still claims more than 1,000 families on its rolls. A.A.’s sanctuary, located at Peachtree Battle Avenue and Northside Drive, seats 3,000.
But it traces its 19th-century beginnings to a small group of Eastern European emigrants who settled in Atlanta in the 1880s. They didn’t fit in with the German families who established the city’s first synagogue, The Temple, in the 1860s, so they started their own synagogue, said Doris Goldstein, a member of the Ahavath Achim since 1963 and author of “From Generation to Generation,” a history of the synagogue published for its centennial.
“You had this established Jewish community of 400 to 500 people. These were people who assimilated to a certain extent,” Goldstein said. “Then along comes an influx of these funny-looking people with long beards and black coats. They spoke Yiddish. …. That’s how A.A got started.”
A handful of men organized the new synagogue, the city’s second, in 1887, she said. Ahavath Achim, the name they chose for it, translates as “love of brothers” or “brotherly love,” she said.
“Of the original 18 members, only six had permanent addresses and were listed in the 1888 edition of the city directory,” she wrote in a book published to coincide with A.A.’s 120th anniversary. The rest, she said, probably lived in rented rooms or with family members. “These Eastern European Jews wanted to replicate much of the traditional life they left behind,” she wrote.
A.A.’s original building, located at Gilmer and Piedmont streets in downtown Atlanta, opened in 1901, according to Goldstein’s book. The congregation built a second, larger home on Washington Street in the 1920s and relocated to its present facilities in the 1950s.
As it’s grown, the congregation has changed as well. A.A. started as an orthodox congregation, then joined the Conservative Movement in 1952, Goldstein said. “It was changing through the times,” she said.
Ahavath Achim Synagogue celebrates its 125th anniversary
What: Premier showing of “Reunion, Renewal and Ruach,” a documentary about the synagogue, premiere of a new song by Los Angeles-based songwriter Craig Taubman, and live music by a band that features A.A. Associate Rabbi Lawrence Rosenthal on guitar.
When: Jan. 27
Where: Ahavath Achim Synagogue, 600 Peachtree Battle Ave., NW, Atlanta, 30327
To order tickets: firstname.lastname@example.org or 404-266-8676
Ezor set out to capture the congregation’s history and its contributions to the community by interviewing members. He originally envisioned a short movie compiled from interviews taped with a home video camera, he said. But he soon realized his subject required more.
“One guy came in – he’s 97 years old – and he says how he saw Jackie Robinson come to town to play the Atlanta Crackers and saw him steal home,” Ezor said. “Another says how he came face-to-face with Coretta Scott King.”
He sought help from a writer friend and called on professional videographers to record his interviews. He got Broadway actress Tovah Feldshuh to record the voiceover.
As he compiled interviews, Ezor realized A.A. had contributed leadership to Atlanta and its Jewish community. “It’s really been a ‘mother ship’ for the starting of programs in the Jewish and secular communities,” he said. “A.A. is everywhere. There are pieces of A.A.’s heart scattered all over this town.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, as metro Atlanta sprawled across north Georgia, A.A.’s congregation changed, members said. Membership declined as new synagogues opened in the suburbs. A.A. Rabbi Neil Sandler said the metro area now has nearly 40 congregations.
So, as it reaches 125, A.A. is changing again, this time to attract younger families and others who are returning to the city. The synagogue offers a variety of services and spiritual experiences, from traditional services to meditation to activities for children.
Sandler offers as one example of something new: the “AAbsolute Shabbat,” a service set to pop music from performers such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkel or U2.
Sandler said some members no longer want to be part of a passive audience “where the people up on the stage do it for you and you came to watch the show.” Instead, “now we really want to engage people,” he said.
As A.A. celebrates its 125th year, “we stand at a very interesting place,” the rabbi said. “It’s not a crossroads. It’s a road. Where we stand is on the road of renewal, to what it means to be a congregation in the 21st century.”