One of the best books on the history of Jews in Atlanta appeared 39 years ago. I was given the opportunity to review that volume by Steven Hertzberg, “Strangers Within the Gate City.”
I was much less into Atlanta Jewish history than I am now because my view on Atlanta Jewry before we made aliyah in 1977 was limited. Through my grandparents, my parents, my uncles and aunts, and a number of Atlanta Jews, I had heard what I thought I needed to know about the Jews in the Gate City.
The most important person I met was the widow of Harold Hirsch, one of our great leaders. She was dressed completely in black, her custom since her husband’s death in 1940. A very Reform Jew, she was a very close friend to my grandmother Sara Hene Geffen (z”l), whose yahrzeit is on Tisha B’Av.
After my classes at Emory in the late 1950s and even a few years earlier, I watched them as the spiritually committed Reform Jew and most religious Orthodox Jew had tea together and a beautiful, loving meeting, as they had frequently since the late 1930s.
From my bubbie and zaydie and my parents, I absorbed what Harold Hirsch meant to our family, to Shearith Israel, to The Temple and to Atlanta Jewry. That treat — learning the history of the most committed Atlanta Jew ever — has always been with me.
All the rest I now know came from study, from the great Atlanta and Southern Jewish scholar Mark Bauman, from Eli Evans’ “The Provincials” in English and Hebrew, from The Jewish Georgian newspaper, from The Southern Israelite, from Rabbi Tuvia Geffen’s “Autobiography,” and from the multitude of stories I read in newspapers in English, Hebrew and Yiddish.
After setting the scene for the meaningful visits from the Gate City to Israel, let me proceed.
In 1950, in I don’t know how many American communities, a need was felt to bond Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews.
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman had not come to Atlanta yet, but the rabbis of the city — Rabbi Harry Epstein, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, Rabbi Joseph Cohen, Rabbi Hyman Friedman and Rabbi Geffen — had a close bond. Rabbis Epstein and Rothschild chose to show the spirit of Atlanta Jewry by being the campaign chairmen for Federation and by traveling together to a young Israel.
In January 1991, the Gulf War was imminent, and the Iraqi rockets were waiting to be fired on Israel. Who came to visit Israel then? A mission of Atlanta Jewry.
“The Gate City — Atlanta Jews Will Let Nothing Deter Them” was the headline of my story in The Jerusalem Post. Atlantans were here to be inspired even in the face of war.
You cannot imagine what this meant to the Israelis. I could because my family and I lived here.
I wrote about the phoenix, the city’s symbol. Atlanta chose that bird to epitomize the rejuvenation after the Civil War. To conclude life, the phoenix dives into a fire and emerges much more beautiful than he or she was previously.
Atlanta Jewry recognized Israel was under fire, but those participants from Dixie 27 years ago made sure Israelis knew what would happen even if they were attacked: They would arise again to greater heights.
Yes, Atlanta Jewry did that here.
In the Atlanta Jewish Times, you have read Eric Robbins’ credo for Atlanta Jewry to take new steps. On Jan. 23, all Israelis could see his picture and read in The Jerusalem Post why the Atlanta Front Porch mission for leaders was coming to Israel on Sunday, Jan. 28.
He pointed out what the participants hoped to see and learn. In the midst of all that was transpiring here, this group had come to seek insights from their Israeli brothers and sisters to make the Atlanta Jewish community better.
As the history of Atlanta Jewry proves, do not just talk about Israel from afar; come see our country, your country, as it is today. Hazak hazak, I say: Be strong and carry a message from Israel back to Atlanta.