Founded in 1914 by a handful of families from Turkey and the Isle of Rhodes, Congregation Or VeShalom evolved into a strong community of Jews from all over the world. Now the grandchildren of some of the founding members are taking Sephardic traditions beyond the synagogue walls to help lead Jewish Atlanta.
OVS has produced many community leaders over the decades, but now it has members leading three of the community’s most prominent nonprofit organizations: the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the Marcus Jewish Community Center and Jewish Home Life Communities.
Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla said the congregation fosters a spirit of leadership that inspires its members to be active within OVS and with other Jewish organizations.
“The families value leadership in the community, and there’s a tradition of being involved in the community. When they came, they wanted to be a fountain; they didn’t want to be a drain,” Rabbi Kassorla said. “The synagogue also embraces leadership, and we warmly embrace members who want to be leaders in the congregation.”
Joel Arogeti just began his second year as the chairman of the Marcus JCC’s board of directors. His grandparents Joseph and Reina Arogeti were among the founding members of OVS.
Arogeti is a former president of the synagogue and a current board member. He said the OVS environment provided him with the foundation to become a leader within the Atlanta Jewish community.
“Growing up in this particular synagogue helped shape my identity and hold my values. I had many family and friends teach me service and leadership,” Arogeti said. “It’s a congregation with a low barrier to entry. Synagogues tend to be more homogenous, but Or VeShalom has a variety of people, which can be a strength and a challenge.”
As a child, Arogeti saw Jews who practice the religion in various ways treated with dignity and respect, and he has taken that lesson on his journey of stewardship. He said the older generation provided examples of how to respect others while honoring their culture.
Arogeti recalls a story of childhood friend’s father becoming the president of OVS and grappling with the men’s meeting being held in Hebrew or Ladino, then changing to all English. Observing that shift left a strong impression of what it means to be a leader.
“Our prayers and pronunciation of words are different, and I was exposed to Reform and Conservative Judaism at summer camp. It helped me learn to appreciate different forms of Judaism,” Arogeti said. “I don’t think you can appreciate diversity unless you have a rich understanding of who you are.”
That background helps him interact with diverse groups and organizations that can benefit from his experience. “It gave me the foundation to serve on other not-for-profit boards. It gave me the confidence and skills to serve on Hosea Feed the Hungry, which is a Christian ministry, and that gave me a great perspective beyond the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Kassorla said Arogeti is continuing the OVS tradition of leaving a legacy inside and outside the synagogue. For more than 101 years OVS has been home to people committed to the service of all.
“I don’t want to generalize, but that has been the case in many countries where there are Sephardic Jews. In many cases they are involved within the general Jewish community; they have not wanted to stay in the ghetto,” Rabbi Kassorla said. “It is also in the Sephardic tradition of not only strengthening yourself and your family, but being involved in the general community.”
Marriage is what prompted Joel Marks, the chairman of Federation, to take on community leadership. He grew up in the Chicago suburbs, where he took being Jewish for granted until he married his wife, Charlotte, the daughter of longtime OVS members Albert and Tillie Tenenbaum.
He was soon introduced to Albert Maslia and Asher Benator, former OVS presidents and leaders in Atlanta’s business sector.
“I lived in a Jewish ghetto where everybody was Jewish,” Marks said. “OVS exposed me to a broad community, and Albert Maslia was one of my mentors. Albert and Asher made the place what it was — not just in the community, but in business.”
The history of the synagogue, the warmth and the familial atmosphere make OVS unique, Marks said, adding that no one could match the values and culture of the congregation.
The same environment that has nurtured Marks since his marriage inspired Angie Wieland, the daughter of longtime OVS members Victor Maslia and Lenore Sater-Maslia, to take on leadership roles. She sits on the board of Jewish Family & Career Services, where she focuses on disability programming.
Wieland remembers how easy it was to become a leader within OVS, which made her more inclined to take on leadership roles outside the synagogue. She is a member of the OVS Sisterhood, has been the congregation treasurer and co-chairs the legendary Chanukah bazaar.
She said OVS has everything anyone needs to cultivate leadership skills.
“You can take on any role, and everyone is there to help you be successful,” Wieland said. “We grew up watching our parents do it, and it’s in our DNA. It’s a mitzvah to help and be a leader.”
Having prominent Jewish leaders come from OVS is a source of pride for Deborah Maslia, the board chair for Jewish Home Life Communities. She said such communal leadership has special meaning because the congregation is small and tight-knit.
Maslia is the daughter of OVS members Dan and Janet Maslia, and her paternal grandparents were founding members. The strong family ties make Maslia aware of the importance of communal prominence for older generations at OVS.
“It makes me proud because I look at my parents and I know they’re proud,” Maslia said.
She sees how Jewish Home Life Communities’ projects involve many of the OVS members she has known for more than 50 years, and she collaborates with them at the Marcus JCC, JF&CS and Federation.
Maslia said the bonds created at OVS help the leaders serve the community.
“I’ve experienced it more this year than ever before. Collaborations are stronger and more powerful because we all grew up together,” she said. “Growing up as a minority makes you have bigger appreciation for collaboration, speaking up and being a leader.”