The Atlanta Jewish community will have the opportunity Thursday, March 16, to support and learn about the Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah while honoring the two rabbis largely responsible for making it a reality: Alvin Sugarman and Joshua Heller.
“The evening will be a chance to celebrate what we have accomplished,” said Rabbi Heller, the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah. “I think even many of those who are coming don’t have the full picture of what an incredible place MACoM is and will have the opportunity to learn more.”
MACoM, which opened in November 2015, is an independent nonprofit open to the entire Atlanta Jewish community. The collaborative and inclusive nature of the project inspired many to get involved with it.
“The reason I supported the mikvah is because it’s a community mikvah,” said benefactor Mike Leven, who will serve as the master of ceremonies at the March 16 event at the Georgia Aquarium, where he is the CEO.
“MACoM is one of only a handful of community mikvot in the country,” said Janet Lavine, the incoming president of The Temple, who is co-chairing the event. “It promotes the concept of spiritual renewal and purification in a much broader way than is usually associated with a mikvah.”
“Now we have a place that anybody can go to, in any way that they believe, and even for some who don’t,” Leven said of MACoM.
Because the Jewish community today is “incredibly divided,” he added, the mikvah is even more important. “Anything today that helps to unify the Jewish people is important for Jewish continuity.”
Leven credits Rabbis Heller and Sugarman for bringing that unity to Atlanta through MACoM. “They are two rabbis who represent the best of what the community has to offer in terms of unifying the Jewish world.”
Barbara LeNoble, the executive director of MACoM, said those two men were pivotal in bringing the Jewish community together through the mikvah.
“Without Rabbis Alvin M. Sugarman and Joshua Heller, there would be no mikvah,” she said. “What they did together is just incredible. The two of them had a shared vision and mission, and that mission was to create a community mikvah that would attract Jews from a variety of spectrums.”
It’s a vision they still share.
“It is genuinely a true Jewish communal effort and a place for the Jewish community to grow and learn and participate,” said Rabbi Sugarman, who has emeritus status at The Temple.
“I don’t think you will find any other project or activity in Atlanta that has so many different rabbis and congregations and individuals involved,” said Rabbi Heller, who heads the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.
That is why they wanted to make MACoM independent of any congregation, even though it was built on B’nai Torah ground and replaced that congregation’s mikvah.
“For this really to be everything that it could be, it couldn’t be one shul owning it. It had to be that anyone who wanted to felt like they could have a share in it,” Rabbi Heller said. “I wanted this to be something where many different Jews and many different synagogues could come together and share together, in a way that they could never have done on their own.”
Both rabbis expressed nothing but admiration for each other and for the role the other played in making MACoM a reality.
“It’s very meaningful to me to be honored with Rabbi Sugarman, who was a mentor, a partner and a cheerleader,” Rabbi Heller said.
Rabbi Sugarman said Rabbi Heller was integral in creating MACoM.
“This would not be a reality without his absolute commitment,” Rabbi Sugarman said. “He’s the one that has done the work and has never given up. He’s been absolutely terrific. … I cannot say enough praise for Josh Heller for his work in general, but specifically for his absolute dedication to the success of MACoM.”
Planners and supporters hope the Mitzvah for the Mikvah event will help ensure the facility’s continued success beyond raising money to pay off any debt from the construction and building costs and honoring Rabbis Sugarman and Heller.
“Hopefully, attendees will acknowledge the two individuals who worked tirelessly to create MACoM here in Atlanta, they will see that MACoM is indeed an important community resource for Jews in Atlanta of all denominations, and they will see the broader role of mikvah as an ancient tradition that can elevate and enhance the spirituality of key life changes in our present day,” Lavine said.
During the event, attendees will hear from four people who have used the mikvah for different purposes. LeNoble hopes those presentations will inspire others and “open them up to the possibility of what the mikvah can be to themselves and to their families.”
People go to MACoM for many reasons, both traditional and nontraditional, Rabbi Sugarman said: the final step in a conversion process, the beginning or ending of chemotherapy, major life changes such as divorce or the death of a spouse, before weddings, and more.
“Someone who is Reform, Conservative and Orthodox can each come and use that space in a way that is meaningful to them,” Rabbi Heller said. “It is used by over 20 congregations as a central resource for over 100 people a year converting to Judaism.”
LeNoble sees firsthand the impact of a dip in the mikvah. She said people often come in rushed and stressed and leave calm and smiling.
“No one has left that isn’t just transformed and very positive. I think that’s something that I’ve enjoyed seeing,” LeNoble said. “It’s not so much about religion, but more about the spiritual transformation that can happen from doing this. … It’s an incredibly powerful way to ignite one’s foundation in life, and the benefits can last for a while.”
MACoM’s biggest impact lies ahead, Rabbi Heller said. “Every month, new people are learning the meaning of mikvah as a Jewish spiritual practice and finding ways to make it part of their own approach to Judaism, whether through traditional or innovative uses.”
Rabbi Sugarman remembers growing up at The Temple when no one had a bar or bat mitzvah celebration. He remembers being an assistant rabbi at The Temple’s first bar mitzvah. Now b’nai mitzvah services at The Temple are “the norm.”
That is what he hopes MACoM does for mikvah.
“I hope that it’s part of the normal cycle of Jewish life that many, many, many families simply accept,” Rabbi Sugarman said. “That it becomes just a norm.”
What: Mitzvah for the Mikvah
Where: Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker St., downtown
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 16
Tickets: $200; atlantamikvah.org or 404-549-9679