By Michael D. Lefkove
Friday, May 6, marked a special time at Lake Oconee’s Congregation Chai: the celebration, blessing and dedication of a Torah and ark for the nearly 4-year-old congregation.
My wife and I arrived at Lake Oconee in May 2003. The area has become a destination for a diverse group of people looking for a laid-back way of life.
People come from all over the country and various international locales, looking for golf, tennis, fishing, natural beauty, and all of the fun leisure activities we plan after a lifetime of working and raising our children.
Our community skews older because of the number of retirees and empty nesters. We are through raising kids but very much involved with grandparenting.
Almost immediately after arriving, we began to meet other Jewish families at the clubhouses of Reynolds, on the golf course, at dinner parties and at informal Jewish events. Passover, Chanukah and Yom Kippur break fast were our usual events.
Most of the Jews I met at Lake Oconee shared some things. We came from large Jewish communities. We belonged to synagogues. We enjoyed celebrating and worshipping together. But from Lake Oconee we needed to go to Atlanta, Athens, Augusta or Macon for Jewish worship.
In the summer of 2012, I received word that there would be a rabbi-led Shabbat service at the Lake Oconee Community Church.
Rabbi Ronald Gerson was introduced to us as rabbi emeritus of Congregation Children of Israel in Athens. He had recently turned over his pulpit to a younger rabbi but was not interested in retiring.
“I had originally come to the lake quite often to perform weddings,” Rabbi Gerson said. “I learned that there was a group of Jewish people there who met socially for holidays. I saw the potential to mold this into a religious organization.”
He met with the LOCC’s ministers, David Key Sr. and Becky Matheny, about using their space for a Jewish congregation, “and they were wonderfully receptive,” the rabbi said. “So I was blessed to found Lake Oconee Congregation Chai, and we began meeting for services in July 2012.”
That first Shabbat service was attended by approximately 20 people. The pattern became an evening service on the first Friday of the month, followed by a communal Shabbat dinner at a restaurant. Rabbi Gerson would bring siddurs, kippot, a challah, Shabbat candles, a Kiddush cup and his miniature Torah to augment our services.
Elaine and Gene Weinberger, who moved to Lake Oconee after many years in Augusta, have been a part of our congregation from the start.
They knew Key in Augusta, where he grew up, and he talked to them several times at the lake about Rabbi Gerson’s interest in starting a congregation.
“We have enjoyed our association with Congregation Chai, as well as with Lake Oconee Community Church members and staff,” Elaine Weinberger said.
The rabbi came for the High Holidays, and we started to resemble a real synagogue sans a building fund and annual dues (contributions are voluntary).
As our Jewish community grew, so did attendance at our services. A new Jewish family would show up every few months and be welcomed to our community.
Ronni Udoff, a weekender at Lake Oconee and a regular at our Friday services, told us that a congregation in New York was merging with another and had a Torah to donate. This marked a special time for our fledgling congregation at Lake Oconee.
Asked about the importance of acquiring a Torah for our congregation, Rabbi Gerson said: “The Torah is the very center of the Jewish religion. It contains our history, our prophets and our other writings. It guides Jews in life. So it is very important for a congregation to have a Torah, and we are very fortunate to have one so that we can read from it at our services.”
One of our congregants, a retired finance wiz-turned-master woodworker, built our ark while our donated Torah was evaluated for repairs and updating by a rabbi in Atlanta. We established a memorial Torah fund — it turns out to be expensive to acquire a free Torah, what with repairs and the provision of a suitable ark — and raised the money to give our Torah a proper home.
Our Shabbat services now include a Torah service with all the attendant reverie that we became accustomed to in our previous synagogues.
All in all, we feel blessed at Lake Oconee to have our little Jewish congregation, our rabbi, a place to worship together and our Torah.