The Evolution of Etz Chaim

The Evolution of Etz Chaim



I have spent more than half my life as a resident of Dixie, with two native born children. Full disclosure would indicate that I was born just across the bridge from Philadelphia in West Jersey Hospital in Southern Jersey, and so, I have truly been a southerner all my life. And, indeed, when my time on this good earth draws to an end, my plans are to move into a small, cozy place in the Arlington Cemetery. I am a committed Braves, Falcons, and Hawks fan, no longer do I cheer for the Phillies, Eagles, or 76ers.

Groundbreaking at Congregation Etz Chaim, Then

I moved down to Atlanta during the summer of 1978 to a modest Jewish community with seven synagogues, a few independent kosher butchers, a robust JCC and an assortment of agencies to serve the needs of local Jewry. Hearing Yiddish spoken with a southern drawl constantly reminded me that no matter how many times I clicked my heels I was no longer north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Etz Chaim was founded 40 years ago by a young, enthusiastic group of locals and transplants, seeking to build a Conservative shul to serve the northern suburbs. I began as a student in 1977 and then in 1978 moved down as the full-time rabbi and have joyfully held that position ever since. The Atlanta Jewish community has grown wondrously, yet it is difficult to imagine the different culture that existed back then. Jewish life beyond I-285 was unimaginable, but Jewish life over the Chattahoochee River was deemed impossible. The joke was that a passport was necessary when entering Cobb County.

It was quite a different world back then. When we put up the first stage of our building, there were members who expressed genuine fear about our security and safety. After all, Leo Frank was lynched just down the street and Mary Paghan was buried not so far away. They felt, with our new visibility, we would be targets of anti- Semitic violence. The suggestion was made to have armed congregants patrol the property at night. Such concerns were immediately dismissed. In all the years we have been on Indian Hills Parkway, never has there been an anti-Semitic act of vandalism. In fact, in all the years I have walked home with a kippah on my head, never have I experienced an ugly comment directed at me by drivers by.

Congregation Etz Chaim, Now

A few memories. Etz Chaim built the first public sukkah ever in Cobb County. Soon after its construction, we received several calls complimenting us on our Nativity scene but curious why we were building it in September. Before we had a place to call home we would hold services, when hosting a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, at a local hotel. A beautiful, wooden, portable ark was crafted for such occasions and was transported to the simchas in the back of a Chevy Suburban. On one Friday afternoon, as the ark was being wheeled into the Radisson Hotel, a few children near by noticed, got very excited and hollered out, “Hey mister, where’s the puppet show going to be?”

I miss those early days of intimacy, innocence, and pioneering spirit, but Etz Chaim’s growth paralleled the explosion of Atlanta into a bustling Jewish metropolis now with scores of synagogues, institutions .and agencies. As went Atlanta, so went Etz Chaim. We have all grown up, from provincial to major players. Over the years, we have hosted political forums, been a polling place for local and national elections, provided food to shelters, had blood drives, engaged in dialogue and programming with local churches, provided assistance for those in need and more. From the early struggles of getting ten Jews at we now have daily minyanim, both morning and night, with robust Shabbat services. Our members are major players in both the Jewish and non- Jewish communities. Annually, we bring in world-class scholars and offer simulcasts with the 92nd Street Y. In the old days, it was a schlep to buy kosher, but now tasty rib steaks, chicken, and assorted delicacies are available around the corner. The good old days were great but so is today.

Having remained in one place for so many years, I have said tearful goodbyes to many but have also made wonderful new friends. In the early days, I knew every colleague and had been in every synagogue building. Today, there are many rabbis who are strangers and many beautiful houses of worship I have yet to enter. In the early days, I knew everyone at meetings, rallies and events. Today, many are strangers. In the early days, there were a handful of Jewish addresses, but today they are endless. In the twilight of my career, I remember well the dawn and everything in between. My memories are good ones and though I am from Exit 4 on the Turnpike, I am a proud, grateful citizen of the South and count my years as the rabbi of wonderful Etz Chaim as a precious blessing.

Editor’s note: Rabbi Shalom Lewis is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb.

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