By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder

The Atlanta rabbis and the Hartman scholars gather for a retreat photo.

The Atlanta rabbis and the Hartman scholars gather for a retreat photo.

Most congregants know that Atlanta’s Jewish community benefits from the strength of its rabbinic leadership, but less obvious from the pews is how much rabbis benefit from their connections with one another. And so with the intensity of the High Holidays fading, more than 20 rabbis headed to the woods for the Atlanta Rabbinical Association retreat Oct. 25 to 27 at Camp Ramah Darom.

The ARA’s members come together throughout the year, but they usually do not have time to relax and connect on a deeper level.

“The retreat provided a rare opportunity for us to connect with one another across denominational and organizational lines, sharing meals, praying together and studying together,” Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus of The Temple said.

Rabbi Adam Starr of Young Israel of Toco Hills said the rabbis’ opportunity to spend time together strengthens the Jewish community. “Real friendships are formed across denominational lines over our shared love for Torah and the Jewish people. We come to better understand one another and our respective communities, which enables us to better serve the entirety of the Atlanta Jewish community.”

The rabbis were inspired by the presence of scholars from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which specializes in bringing people together from across the spectrum of Jewish life to study Jewish texts.

“Rabbis today fulfill so many roles simultaneously: spiritual leader, community leader, counselor, teacher, administrator, fundraiser,” said Rabbi Lauren Berkun, the director of rabbinic and synagogue programs for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. “With so many capacities to fill, rabbis often neglect their own ongoing intellectual and spiritual development and have limited opportunity for mutually beneficial interaction with rabbinic colleagues.”

The rabbis delved into the study of tikkun olam, a topic of theological and programmatic concern to many modern Jews. While the term is used today to refer to repairing the world, the rabbis explored the ways in which ancient Jewish sources saw the concept and how modern Jewish scholars have wrestled with the meaning of each term on its own and both together.

Questions for consideration included many with tangible effects on the way rabbis do their work in community, such as the Jewish relationship to the broader world, the connection of the individual to people who are “other” in any way, and the setting of priorities among the many needs that demand attention.

Discussion ranged broadly within the theme. In one session, scholar Noam Zion brought the focus to the Jewish obligations to ecology and the environment, while scholar Rani Jaeger, an Israeli of Bulgarian origins, shared the story of how Bulgarian Christians, both everyday people and leaders, worked against the Nazis to save the Jewish population.

“We were thrilled to learn with such a diverse and talented group of Atlanta rabbis,” Rabbi Berkun said. “It was our hope that this program of rigorous study in a pluralistic framework would foster a vibrant exchange of ideas and build a community of leaders who can work collaboratively to transform Jewish life in Atlanta. Throughout the retreat, we were gratified to see the rabbis foster a deep sense of community in an environment of open dialogue, collaboration, peer learning and personal support.”

Study with Hartman scholars in Jerusalem will continue online throughout the year to build on the momentum from the retreat.

The rabbis also took advantage of the opportunity together to consider ways in which their collegial relationships could be brought to the community as a whole. There was easy agreement on the desire to support Israel, and the rabbis are planning a Jewish learning event to share and build connections across the community much the way the rabbis did during the retreat.

The retreat took place under a Marcus Foundation grant that is helping enrich rabbis and the ARA as a whole through year-round leadership training and Torah learning.

Congregation B’nai Torah Rabbi Josh Heller, the president of the ARA, said, “We are grateful to the Marcus Foundation for investing in the rabbis of Atlanta and their professional development, and we are excited to continue to strengthen our professional community and Jewish communities we serve.”