When Erica Hruby became the executive director of Congregation Or Hadash in January, she felt as if she was coming home, and not just because Atlanta is where she began her professional career and started a family while living here for a decade.
It was also because she knew she was being welcomed into a congregational family at the Conservative Sandy Springs synagogue.
The key moment came when an email from Fred Wachter, who was the synagogue president, hit her inbox Dec. 23 while she waited to hear whether the Or Hadash board would approve her hiring. She opened the message to find a photo of the board members holding “Welcome Erica!” signs.
“When I saw this picture, I’m like ‘Yes, that’s the kind of place who will value me, who will appreciate me and where I will be able to make a real difference as a person and as a professional,” Hruby said in an interview several months ago. “I loved it.”
She said the photo reflected the warmth, kindness, heart and soul of the congregation. Months later, she still got goosebumps looking at the picture.
When Hruby, who grew up in the Orlando area, first moved to Atlanta in 1995, she was working on a master’s in clinical psychology at what is now Argosy University, and she got her first taste of Jewish communal work with the religious school at Temple Beth Tikvah. She taught preschoolers, substituted for other classes and served as the synagogue’s assistant education director.
She also taught in the now-defunct community Hebrew high school program, Tichon Atlanta, and gave birth to two daughters before she and husband Matt, her high school sweetheart, moved the family back to Florida.
Bitten by the Jewish communal bug, she worked as the regional BBYO director and oversaw the Hebrew high school program run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando, for which she also did some programming. Then it was off to Greensboro, N.C., for four years as the dean of students of the American Hebrew Academy.
“As I always say, when you’ve spent four years in a Jewish boarding high school, pretty much any other job is a piece of cake,” Hruby said, breaking into the joyful laughter that punctuates a conversation with her.
Having worked with students from preschool through high school, Hruby moved on to college with a stint as the assistant director of Central Florida Hillel, which serves half a dozen schools. Now she has graduated to Or Hadash, and she sees that extensive educational background as a benefit to the congregation.
“A lot of synagogue executive directors come from the business world. Some are Jewish; some are not. But they’re coming from one sort of domain. That I could bring in the Jewish educational domain, and I could also bring in the Jewish administrative experience, created a better opportunity for the synagogue,” Hruby said.
“I’m able to support the educational staff. I’m able to have conversations about Judaism and Jewish concepts with the rabbis, with congregants. I’m not just here to serve a fiscal role. I’m not just here for the physical plant. But I can actually engage with the congregation because I’m one of the congregation. And I also have the background of working in the community.”
Hruby, who describes herself as down to earth, appreciates the chance to work with the engaged, committed lay leadership of Or Hadash and to be part of the dynamic congregational environment. “Yes, you have young people. Yes, there are older people. There are high-schoolers. There are college students. There are young couples. There are singles. There are divorcees. … It’s refreshing to be able to serve a lot of different communities while working in one community.”
She sees herself as a community builder given an opportunity to “reach out to Atlantans who have yet to discover us and who, once they do, will fall in love and really enjoy everything that we have to offer.”
Growth and opportunity are words Hruby used over and over again in describing her job at Or Hadash and her decision to take it on.
“This was really an opportunity for me to step up and take the lead and share my experience and share my leadership skills and share everything I have learned over the years with a shul that is warm and haimish and kind and really looking for someone to come in and continue their vision and help move them from a little bit of a plateau over the last few years to the next phase of membership growth and congregant involvement,” she said.
She wants to see membership grow from 375 to 500 families by connecting with people who don’t know about Or Hadash and Rabbis Analia Bortz and Mario Karpuj and by re-engaging with former members. “Understanding that we’re in our 13th year and it’s really our blossoming, blooming year, we can take that opportunity also to grow membership and grow who we are to be more of a staple in the Atlanta community.”
Hruby’s family also has opportunities in the Atlanta community. Her older daughter transferred to Kennesaw State this semester after spending her freshman year at Central Florida, and Hruby’s younger daughter is in high school. Her husband has family in the area.
Now the four of them are part of the Or Hadash family, Hruby said. “We can sort of bring together the family part and we can bring together the professional part into one place.”