Looking at Bobby Ezor, the synagogue member who directed and produced the film, and his wife Elisa, co-emcee Valerie Habif said, “We are giving you a gift as we close tonight. We are giving you your lives back. You have worked very hard on this project.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed presented the synagogue with the Phoenix Award, “the [city’s] highest honor to be given to any individual, organization or group.”
“Reaching the 125th anniversary is definitely an occasion to remember. … Your congregation has come a long way for the city of Atlanta.”
Post 1 at-large Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond presented the synagogue with a proclamation. So did Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, Ezor’s former law practice partner, on behalf of Gov. Nathan Deal, who could not attend the event.
Twenty men organized the synagogue in 1887, when it started in one room in a building on Gilmer Street downtown. It moved to its own building in 1901, relocated to the corner of Washington and Woodward streets 20 years later and moved to its current location on Peachtree Battle Avenue in 1958.
Ahavath Achim started as an Orthodox Jewish congregation and became a conservative Jewish one, which allowed men and women to worship together.
Ezor said the idea for the documentary stated as “a handful of interviews with our favorite members.”
“One thing led to another and I knew I was in over my head,” he said. The Buckhead lawyer got help from journalist and author Vince Coppola, of Smyrna, who wrote the screenplay; professional videographers Paul and Donna Grady, with Dewitt Smith Video Productions in Cumming, who helped shoot it; and award-winning New York actress Tovah Feldshuh, who narrated it.
During the movie, Feldshuh said Atlanta’s Jewish population was 1,500 in 1887, the year Ahavath Achim was founded. The first congregants of the synagogue were mostly poor immigrants.
Lewis Silverboard, 97, Ahavath Achim’s oldest member, said, “They didn’t want you speaking Yiddish. English was preferred.”
Harry Epstein was named Ahavath Achim’s rabbi right in 1928 and held the role for 54 years.
“My grandfather was selected by some of the elders to meet the leaders, including Harry Epstein,”
said former member Stuart Eizenstat, who now lives in Washington. “When he got home, my father asked ‘How did the new rabbi do?’ He knew all of the … small details.”
Member Leon Goldstein talked about the changes to Ahavath Achim.
“I remember when the women were [seated] upstairs and the men were downstairs on Gilmer Street,” he said of its first building location downtown. Eventually Ahavath Achim integrated. In 1982, the year new Rabbi Arnold Goodman took command, it switched form an Orthodox Jewish synagogue to a conservative Jewish one.
The film showed video of then-Cantor Isaac Goodfriend singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” during President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977.
Goodman talked about replacing Epstein as senior rabbi in 1982. “I knew I could not come in and change the culture, but I could build upon it.”
Members Margo Gold and Nancy Levine talked about women having a larger role in the congregation under Goodman.
“I believe women had something to say,” Levine said.
Former DeKalb County CEO and synagogue member Liane Levetan, added, “I think what Ahavath Achim does was brought together not only the Jewish community but also the overall community.”
Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, talked about the impact Ahavath Achim had on his nonprofit.
“I started the Hunger Walk [fundraiser] and noticed there were no Jewish people there,” Bolling said. “I went to a very wise man, Rabbi Goldman, and I said, ‘How can I get more Jewish people there?’ He said, ‘It’s easy. Just don’t hold it on a Saturday.’ So the next year, I held it on a Sunday afternoon, and each year I’ve done that for 25 years.”
Eizenstat said he brought the lecture series to Atlanta and not Washington “because [Ahavath Achim] has been such a central part of my family’s life for so many years.”
Senior Rabbi Neil Sandler talked about the changes he implemented to draw younger members, including a more separate service with more contemporary music. Not long before taking the helm nearly nine years ago, Ahavath Achim’s leaders considered moving the congregation to Alpharetta to follow them to the suburbs.
“One of the reasons why I was brought here was because the congregation was in need of renewal,” he said.
Member Judy Finkel summed it up best: “Yes, we’ve had our ups and downs, but it’s our synagogue.”