Drive about 90 miles north of Atlanta towards the Georgia-Tennessee-North Carolina borders. There you’ll find more than 100,000 acres of Chattahoochee National Forest, hiking trails, trout streams and the city of Blue Ridge, last year ranked best Southern mountain town by Southern Living Magazine. Surprisingly, you’ll also find a synagogue.
About 15 years ago, several Jews living in the region stretching across the GA-515 corridor discovered there were other Jews. Alan Schulman and his wife retired to Blue Ridge about six years ago, although they have had a second home there for 17 years. “Like every Jewish person here, we knew we were the only Jewish person here,” he said, laughing.
One day he was checking on some property he owned in Ellijay. “There was a hobby farm there and I pulled in. A guy came out and within 30 seconds, asked me if I was Jewish,” Schulman said. Before long, a group started meeting once a month for “lunch and learns” led by a Chabad rabbi from Atlanta. They started holding high holiday services about six years ago.
As Schulman tells it, a group were celebrating Purim in someone’s house when they realized they had all the necessary elements of a congregation. Marty Pomeranz, who had led high holiday services, was religious, and was willing to continue to do so, but unwilling to do anything administrative. “One person said they could be the secretary, and another said they’d be the treasurer,” Schulman recalled.
Soon they established the Jewish Congregation of Blue Ridge, holding their first service in January 2017. Today, 50 people contribute to support the synagogue, which meets in the Faith Presbyterian Church. And now, with the help of a Florida synagogue that closed its doors, the Jewish Congregation of Blue Ridge has a Torah.
Synagogue board secretary Howard Winkler recalls a Rosh Hashanah sermon in 2019 during which Pomeranz raised the subject of the congregation having its own Torah. JCBR had been borrowing a Torah from Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta. Having its own Torah “seemed like an insurmountable challenge,” Winkler said. In conversations with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life about JCBR donating some siddurim it no longer needed, “it occurred to me that maybe they knew of a Torah.”
Winkler, who lives part-time in Kennesaw and part-time in Mineral Bluff outside of Blue Ridge, was put in touch with Bernie Wolfson of Congregation Beth Sholom in Gulfport, Fla., near Clearwater. The independent Conservative congregation that started about 70 years ago closed its doors a few months ago and had four Torah scrolls for which it sought new homes.
“I first contacted him in mid-October,” Winkler said of his four-month-long conversation with Wolfson. “He vetted me and our sustainability as a congregation. He wanted to make sure Beth Sholom was sending its child to a good home. His last call to me, saying we would get the Torah, occurred during a JCBR board meeting. Alan and I drove down to Gulfport to pick up the Torah.”
Now the Torah, which is apparently of European origin written in the early 20th century, is being examined by Rabbi Ariel Asa in Atlanta. “There’s no doubt it’s kosher and the required repairs are minor,” Winkler said. JCBR expects to start using the Torah after Passover.
Like most congregations, JCBR has been holding virtual services during the pandemic. Recently retired Rabbi Steven Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth, as well as lay leaders from TKE, occasionally came to Blue Ridge to lead services.
But services are not the only focus of the congregation. According to Schulman, the congregation is active and “well known” in the community. He said there are “two groups of people we live with: retirees from Atlanta and Florida who are educated and being around Jews isn’t unusual, and the locals, most of whom have never seen a Jew. I haven’t seen anti-Semitism as much as I’ve seen ignorance,” Schulman said.
“The inequality between the retired folks and the locals is dramatic. The percentage of kids getting supplemental food is high, so we volunteer at the [Blue Ridge] food pantry. We want to be known as people who contribute.”
Schulman added that the congregation continues to “find” Jews in the area. In addition to Blue Ridge, congregants come from Ellijay, Jasper, Blairsville, Young Harris and Hiawassee. “We have been collecting people,” said Schulman. “They come out of the woodwork.”
This Rosh Hashanah, there will be one more Jewish person participating in the services at Jewish Congregation of Blue Ridge. Wolfson, of Congregation Beth Sholom, plans to attend the services, to hear the reading of his late congregation’s Torah. “I didn’t even wait for an invitation,” he said. “I’m going to that synagogue and see my Torah!”