What compels a 46-year-old stay-at-home mother in Dunwoody to wake up one morning and, despite no experience working in the Jewish communal world, create an organization to counter anti-Semitism?
“It’s a fascinating process, what’s going on in my life,” Lauren Menis said.
Two weeks before we met for coffee, Menis would have described herself as “a writer who wasn’t writing,” a wife, and the mother of a 12-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, both students at the Davis Academy.
Now she is also an activist, with a yellow legal pad full of notes, a contact list swelling with names and numbers, multiple spreadsheets on her laptop, and a growing awareness of the scope of Jewish Atlanta.
Menis’ nerves have been rattled by reports of bomb threats telephoned and emailed to Jewish community centers and other institutions and by images of gravestones toppled in Jewish cemeteries.
She admits to being surprised at her reaction to these events. Menis hasn’t encountered anti-Semitism personally, not since immigrating at age 9 with her family to the United States from South Africa (she remembers a girl there insulting her for being Jewish).
“We live in a country and society where, as Jews, we feel so integrated,” Menis said. “I’ve never had to define myself as a Jew, even though it’s part of who I am. … Suddenly, my position in society feels less secure and safe, and I thought, ‘Are my children going to grow up in a world where people feel emboldened and feel that it’s somehow OK to be anti-Semitic?’ ”
Menis texted a group of fellow Davis Academy moms, “and I said, ‘Guys, I have to do something about anti-Semitism. Who’s in?’ ”
Thus was born the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism.
At its core are about a dozen women, mostly Davis Academy moms, with a larger number of other women pitching in around them.
AIAAS has a logo and a Facebook group numbering 3,800 and rising daily.
Without knowing how Jewish organizations were responding to the issue, Menis decided to convene a meeting, inviting representatives from those groups, along with congregations, schools, businesses, law enforcement and other faiths.
A member of Temple Emanu-El, Menis contacted Rabbi Spike Anderson, who agreed to host the gathering.
At this writing, more than 100 organizations will be represented. Menis is grateful for the advice she received from men and women with years of experience in the Jewish world. “We want to be a connector between all these groups,” she said. “We’re not here to compete with anybody.”
The secret to creating this nascent organization?
“We didn’t know any better,” she said with a laugh.
But in for a penny, in for a pound.
This project is cutting into her sleep and occupying her dreams. Routine household work may suffer, but her husband, Michael (“the calm to my hyper”), who is an executive with a hotel group, and their children can see how committed Menis has become to playing an active role in opposing anti-Semitism.
Menis apologizes for speaking quickly, a trait that comes with her considerable energy. The intensity of this undertaking reminds Menis of her decade as a producer at CNN, a job she left to raise her children. (Disclosure: I knew Menis during my years at the network.)
At the end of March, various realms of Jewish Atlanta and beyond will gather at Temple Emanu-El. Until then, Menis and her newfound associates are focused on that closed meeting. They’ll consider what comes next after they catch their breath from the energetic pace of the past month.
Menis envisions the role of AIAAS as raising awareness of anti-Semitism at a grassroots level, encouraging dialogue inside and outside the Jewish community, and keeping the various parties aware of one another’s efforts.
The established Jewish organizations may wonder what a group of day school mothers can achieve that they haven’t, but this is a time when the more members of the community who are willing to take a stand, the better.