By Rebecca McCarthy
From tot Shabbat services to Israeli beer tastings, Marilyn Gootman keeps finding ways to build community at Athens’ Congregation Children of Israel. Along the way, she has helped attract members to the synagogue and has helped families with young children link up with others to find friends and fellowship.
“I’m amazed at her diligence in creating activities for people to participate in,” Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor said. “She thinks outside the box and lets people know there’s more than one way to be Jewish in Athens. And she does things in a personal way.”
Gootman was a professor of early childhood education at the University of Georgia’s College of Education. After growing up in a Conservative congregation, she earned undergraduate degrees from Simmons College and Boston Hebrew College, a master’s in Jewish education from Brandeis University, and a doctorate from UGA in early childhood education and educational psychology.
She moved to Athens in the 1970s with her husband, Elliot, a Harvard-educated mathematician who joined the UGA math department.
As a university professor, Gootman wrote “When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing” after watching one of her three children struggle with a friend’s death. The book is popular and useful and has an introduction by another famous Athenian, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.
Gootman’s advocacy for children, parents and teachers has led to appearances on CNN and other TV networks and interviews on radio programs in the United States and Canada.
After leaving UGA, she took a job with Jewish Educational Services, which became the Center for Jewish Education and Experience, and commuted from Athens to Atlanta. She taught in the master’s degree program, “and I loved it,” she said. She also served as the coordinator for distance learning. Students earned a master’s in Jewish studies from Siegal College of Judaic Studies in Cleveland.
Gootman said the program produced “many wonderful Jewish educators in Atlanta,” including Bobby Harris, the director of Camp Coleman, and Janet Schatten, who was the director of Jewish family education at the Epstein School.
Eventually, the traffic on Interstate 285 and Ga. 316 did her in, and Gootman left CJEe. She began focusing her talents on engaging Jewish families, children and students in Athens.
After getting donations from the congregation, she secured a matching grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that helped fund the PJ Library at her synagogue — making Athens the first community in Georgia with the program providing free books to Jewish children.
This year she helped host a Chanukah celebration at UGA Hillel that brought 35 parents and 38 children to celebrate with students.
Grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Schusterman Family Foundation helped with the Purim Project to engage Jewish people who weren’t affiliated with the community. Children decorated mishloah manot boxes. Others baked goodies to fill them, and still others helped pack and distribute the boxes. Inside were child-designed notecards wishing people a happy Purim.
Each synagogue member received two boxes: one to keep and one to give someone Jewish who was not a member of Congregation Children of Israel.
“She has her own children and grandchildren to worry about, and yet she treats us all as though she’s the mother and grandmother we need in Athens,” said Cahnmann-Taylor, a professor in the language and literacy department in UGA’s College of Education. “Everyone is welcome at her table.”
A small Schusterman grant led to a specially catered Rosh Hashanah dinner for PJ Library parents at The National, an award-winning Athens restaurant. Those parents then planned an Israeli beer-tasting party.
Some 25 families are involved in Family Fun Shabbat dinners, made possible by a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. There have been challah baking workshops — the congregation boasts some excellent bakers, including Gootman — and make-and-take workshops, at which people create challah covers, Kiddush cups and candlesticks. Such workshops feed into multifamily dinners in private homes “so people can see the beauty of celebrating Shabbat,” Gootman said.
In her spare time, Gootman has written “The Joys of Parenting: Insight and Wisdom From the Jewish Tradition” with Dr. Maurice Elias and Heather Schwartz Allen. It will be published this fall by Behrman House.
“Someone has to take the lead with young families,” she said. “I decided that at this point in my life, I would do it.”