Chabad Takes Root South of Atlanta

Chabad Takes Root South of Atlanta

Mindy Rubenstein

Mindy Rubenstein is a freelance journalist who lives in Atlanta with her husband and children. She also serves as the publisher/editor of Nishei, a magazine for Jewish women and children.

Rabbi Lew prepares to move center to Tyrone

Chabad of Peachtree City is bringing enlightenment to the Jewish community with a new center for study and worship south of Atlanta.

Rabbi Yossi and Shternie Lew have served the south-side community for several years from their home, offering classes, services and programs for the holidays. They recently purchased a new building and, after not quite being ready to hold High Holiday services there, plan to move within a couple of weeks.

Rabbi Lew is the only full-time rabbi in the 100 miles between the southern edge of Atlanta and Macon; nearby Congregation B’nai Israel has a new part-time rabbi, Rick Harkavy.

People come to the Chabad center in Fayette County from Clayton County, Coweta County “and many other places where Jews are scattered,” Rabbi Lew said.

Community members had purchased materials and, with their own hands, built a custom synagogue in the rabbi’s garage, he said.

Photo by Larry Shapiro Rabbi Yossi Lew presides over the first Chanukah candle lighting at Peachtree City’s City Hall in 2013.
Photo by Larry Shapiro
Rabbi Yossi Lew presides over the first Chanukah candle lighting at Peachtree City’s City Hall in 2013.

The new building sits on 2½ acres in Tyrone, which borders Peachtree City about an hour southwest of Atlanta.

Peachtree City is a tight-knit community with many rules and regulations, Rabbi Lew said. Operating out of the Lew home was “frowned upon by the homeowners association and the city.” He had met with them to explain his motives and mission and said he was “going to do everything I can not to step on anyone’s toes.”

He added: “We worked things out, and everything has been fine.”

Still, for the long term, he realized there was a better option.

“I felt that going to Tyrone was the smarter route,” he said. “It’s literally one street over.” People can buy the same house for half the price and live near the shul, he said.

At the new location, a small house on a large plot of land, they took down some walls and now can fit more than 100 people for services, events, and Purim and Chanukah parties, plus classrooms for Hebrew school. They have a kitchen and a big back yard for parking.

“With G-d’s help this will turn into the main facility down the road,” the rabbi said.

He said the goal is to build a Jewish community that welcomes Jews of all backgrounds, and if people observe Shabbat and are looking for an alternative community, “they will have a place to go.”

Rabbi Lew drives 40 miles to Toco Hills each morning to bring his children to Torah Day School of Atlanta. The Lews have 10 children ages 26 to 10, as well as grandchildren, and are planning their second wedding, to be held nearby.

Rabbi Lew served as associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefillah in Sandy Springs for 19 years under Rabbi Yossi New. He developed the adult education and other programs there.

“My wife and I felt that it was important to utilize our strengths and expand the reach of Chabad of Georgia,” Rabbi Lew said.

“That is a growing area,” said Rabbi New, whose Chabad of Georgia oversees more than a dozen Chabad centers.

“Rabbi Yossi and Shternie Lew have a unique combination of experience, warmth and wisdom. It’s a great credit to them that they wanted to share those talents and go out to virgin territory to develop the Jewish presence there,” Rabbi New said.

“There are a lot of Jews, and they are coming all the time,” Rabbi Lew said. “We have heard of thousands of Jews between Atlanta and Macon, which is the area we service. We hope to find out the numbers as we move along.”

He said he sees a mix of retirees and young families, as well as a significant number of pilots and other Delta workers based at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“I don’t know anyone born in Peachtree City. Some are transplants from Atlanta, but most have transplanted from all over,” he said. “It’s a real mix, which makes things much more interesting and free-flowing.”

The Lews moved to Peachtree City in 2012 just before Rosh Hashanah and held High Holiday services at a hotel the first two years. This year they had about 100 people at their garage-turned-synagogue.

Yoram Ben-Hanania and his wife, Sandy, who have four children, started at Chabad of North Fulton and moved to Peachtree City in 2014. An airline pilot with Delta, he wanted to be closer to the airport.

One day he and his wife were in Starbucks and noticed a man with a kippah and a woman pushing a baby stroller. His wife said: “Look, they are Jewish. Maybe they know of a Chabad nearby.”

The woman answered in the affirmative and said the rabbi was her father.

“It was from above,” Ben-Hanania said. “Since the beginning, they embraced us as part of the community. He has gone above and beyond for us spiritually and physically.”

He added: “We love being part of the community. It’s family.”

He said he is excited about new, more spacious facility, and he raves about the area.

“It’s a beautiful place to live,” unknown to Atlanta’s intown dwellers, Ben-Hanania said.

“An anomaly, an oasis in the dessert,” the area is friendly and safe, offers hills, lakes and trees, and has less traffic and a slower pace than the big city, he said. “You feel very at peace here. In the stores people are happy to see you. It’s small-town living just outside of Atlanta.”

Susan Shapiro, who lives in Newnan, 11 miles from Peachtree City, is officially retired but works four days a week at the YMCA. She attends services and events at Chabad, as well as the women’s group and classes such as “Kabbalah and Coffee” on Sunday mornings.

“I love going there,” she said.

When Chabad moves into the new building, she said, she is looking forward to more classes.

“There is always something new that you take away,” Shapiro said, adding about Rabbi Lew: “He’s a wonderful speaker; he really tries to break it down.”

She added that Shternie Lew “is an excellent cook. Her kiddushes after services are very imaginative.”

Having Chabad nearby “fills the need in my heart,” Shapiro said.

Rabbi and Shternie Lew grew up in an atmosphere of Jewish outreach. His parents, Rabbi Shmuel and Hindy Lew, have served as Chabad shluchim (emissaries) in London for 50 years. Her parents, Rabbi Hirsch Leib and Rivkah Begun, have run a Chabad center in Sao Paulo for 55 years.

June Winestock of Newnan can’t say enough good things about the Lews. “We love him. We love his family. It was like a godsend that he came down here.”

She and her friends used to travel north to Chabad Intown with Rabbis Eliyahu Schusterman and Ari Sollish, but making the drive at night was difficult. “We still love them and see them sometimes. They’re incredible.”

She refers to Chabad of Peachtree City as her family. “It made a big difference in my life.

It is phenomenal,” she said. “The people here are just fabulous.”

Winestock added: “Now I have a Jewish community. It made a whole new world down here, and we are very thankful for them. They have really brought light into our community.”

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