By Mindy Rubensteinmrubenstein@atljewishtimes.com

Moving to Atlanta from Florida, Gabby Leon didn’t know many people, so she looked into various organizations to connect with. She attended the kickoff event for the American Jewish CommitteeAJT_NEWLOGO_Square in 2011 and was hooked.

Now she is co-chair of ACCESS Atlanta, the arm of AJC geared for young professionals. ACCESS is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a Roaring Twenties-themed gala April 18.

“Not having any experience with AJC, I was intrigued by the mission and the work of the organization,” Leon said. “Learning more about the mission of AJC locally and nationally was important, but it was also the people that drew me in. I felt like I had an organization home and a place that I fit in.”

As she learned more about the history and the organization’s desire for change, she became more involved and took on larger leadership positions locally and nationally.

“I love that ACCESS is celebrating 25 years,” she said. “It means the organization is stable and that work is continuing to be accomplished.”

ACCESS, which now has 10 locations around the United States and one is Israel, was launched in Atlanta and later adopted on a national level by AJC.

In recent years, ACCESS has invited speakers such as Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to discuss the importance of public service and the type of community outreach work in which AJC and ACCESS regularly engage.

ACCESS prepares the next generation of Jewish leaders to engage the key issues facing the global Jewish community. The group empowers young Jewish activists to shape the conversation on critical domestic and international issues by reaching out to diplomats, opinion makers and young leaders of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.

The anniversary celebration will reunite ACCESS leaders and participants from the past quarter-century and represents an opportunity to raise funds for the Sherry Frank Endowment, which supports ACCESS Atlanta programs and initiatives.

“We’re really celebrating the creation of an organization that has become a very successful international outlet for young Jewish professionals to become advocates for the Jewish people,” Leon said.

ACCESS has earned a successful reputation with a large alumni base. The organization offers a mentor program that gives ACCESS members and general AJC members a chance to interact and learn from each other.

The group’s main challenge is the same as that of any other young Jewish organization in Atlanta: competing for members, time on people’s calendars and funding.

Its success, according to alumni and leaders, comes from presenting unique programming in international diplomacy, black-Jewish relations, interreligious events, anti-Semitism, energy independence, support for Jews around the world, and Israel’s quest for peace and security.

Leon, who works at the Spanx corporate offices, said that as co-chair of ACCESS she has gained valuable management experience, including how to run a board of 40 people and how to lead a meeting.

“I’ve learned important leadership and interpersonal skills, along with what it’s like to work with different personalities and with people who have different priorities and time to give,” she said. “It’s been an incredible experience, one I know will change my life.”

The gala celebration is open to the community. Organizers expect early members to attend with their grown children who are now second-generation members of ACCESS.

“That’s pretty cool,” Leon said.

ACCESS Co-Chair Matt Weiss got involved in 2008 because he knew someone on the board. “I was already very interested in international affairs and the work AJC does, so it was a good fit.”

ACCESS, which has a paid membership of about 150 people, offers events focused on issues such as international diplomacy, speakers on the Middle East, dinners with diplomats, intergroup work and outreach with the Muslim community. The group also offers opportunities for general leadership development, Weiss said.

He said work on the gala began a year ago to highlight not just what ACCESS in Atlanta has done the past 25 years, but also that it was AJC’s founding young professional chapter and a springboard for groups around the world.

“We encourage the entire community to come celebrate,” said Weiss, a lawyer.

Dan Israel, a former ACCESS co-chair, said three words come to mind when he thinks of ACCESS: “Judaism made relevant.”

“That is something ACCESS did for me and so many of my peers in the early 2000s,” Israel said. “Whether the event focused on entrepreneurialism, the future of the Jewish religion, a presidential race through the spectrum of the Jewish community, or just a social gathering for wine and cheese, all of us could find something that resonated with our Jewish identity. And at the end of the day, I think ACCESS helps us maintain our Jewish identity in a crowded field with so many alternatives to practicing Judaism, be it in the U.S., Israel or elsewhere.”

ACCESS was founded in Atlanta 25 years ago as a way to engage young professionals in the important work of AJC.

AJC, founded more than 100 years ago, is an international advocacy organization whose key areas of focus are working to eliminate anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry worldwide, supporting Israel’s quest for peace and security, advocating for energy independence, and strengthening Jewish life.

The organization has regional offices in 22 American cities, nine overseas offices and 32 international partnerships with Jewish communal institutions.

“Much of what we do is helping to align with the national organization,” said Dov Wilker, AJC Atlanta’s executive director since 2011. He said ACCESS helps connect young Jewish leaders and provide access to other leaders throughout the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

“ACCESS has been able to populate the leadership throughout the Jewish community,” he said. “It says a lot about an organization when it’s able to celebrate 25 years of success. It’s a real testament to the Atlanta Jewish community, part of which ACCESS is an integral part.”

Elise Eplan said she feels fortunate that she was part of the creation of ACCESS. “It was the vision of AJC’s staff and lay leadership and provided, and still provides, a way for young people to engage deeply with AJC.”

She and two other ACCESS founders, Kent Alexander and Beth Paradies, went on to become AJC Atlanta Chapter presidents, which she said shows the organization’s commitment to cultivating younger leadership.

“At the start, a lot of us were looking for a community Jewish experience that engaged both our minds and our wallets. ACCESS fit the bill perfectly, and we had a lot of fun too,” Alexander said.

Steve Klorfein served as one of the original ACCESS co-chairs in 1990.

“It was a very exciting time as the Atlanta Chapter, with the special support of Sherry Frank, was looking to get young adults involved in the organization,” Klorfein said. “We came up with the name ACCESS for the group for the simple reason that it was the division that would give access to young adults into the mainstream of the organization. …

“Obviously the fact that we are having this 25th-anniversary celebration and that ACCESS is now an integral part of AJC nationwide speaks to the success of these efforts.”

Alexander said he and his wife, Diane, hosted an early ACCESS event at their home in Morningside. The author of a recent book on bigoted Louisiana politician and ex-Klansman David Duke was speaking.

“It was a beautiful summer night, not too humid,” Alexander said. “So we decided to set up folding chairs and hold the event on our back deck. So many more people showed up than expected that I spent the entire night worrying the deck would collapse. I don’t remember much about the author’s remarks, but I do remember thinking that the AJC was really onto something big with ACCESS. I just didn’t realize how big it would become.”

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What: ACCESS 25th Anniversary

Where: Le Fais do-do, 1611 Ellsworth Industrial Blvd., Atlanta

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 18

Tickets: $75, open to members, alumni and nonmembers alike; www.ajcatlanta.org/access25

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ACCESS to the Top

The following people have served as chairs of ACCESS:

TJ Bierman, 1990-1992

Stephen Klorfein, 1990-1992

Elise Eplan, 1992-1993

Jane Butler, 1993-1994

Caren Appel, 1994-1995

Michael Morris, 1995-1996

Faye Rosing Nozik, 1995-1996

Mindy Selig Shoulberg, 1996-1997

Marc Morrison, 1996-1997

Leslie Isenberg, 1997-1999

Hugh Asher, 1998-2000

Ann Olevitch, 1999-2001

Robert Kremer, 2000-2002

Kelly Richman, 2001-2003

Dan Israel, 2002-2004

Peter Dosik, 2003-2005

Susie Fages, 2004-2006

Ross Kogon, 2005-2007

Shira Blate, 2006-2008

Jonathan Ganz, 2007-2009

Avery Kastin, 2008-2010

Beth Halpern-Brown, 2009-2011

Rebecca Oppenheimer-Nathan, 2010-2012

Harris Konter, 2011-2013

Joel Feldman, 2012-2014

Matt Weiss, 2013-2015

Gabby Leon, 2014-2016