For nearly 30 years, The Jewish Georgian has been a community newspaper here, published every other month, with a circulation of about 12,000. It was started at a time when several prominent members of the community felt there was a need to preserve the local character of Jewish newspapers.
The publisher and editor of the Jewish Georgian for much of its history has been Marvin Botnick, who grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., attended Duke University and became, in 1956, what is thought to be one the first Jewish employees of an Atlanta bank. He went on to a lifetime of service in the Atlanta Jewish community. He was president of The Temple, where he developed its night shelter for the homeless, organized the Jewish Educational Loan Fund to help needy students, and was deeply involved in Jewish organizational work.
Today, nearing 85, he describes the Jewish Georgian as a “feel good” newspaper.
“That’s why I don’t print letters to the editor,” he maintains, “because all people want to do is complain.”
But when we sat down to talk, he wasn’t shy about sharing his own complaints, starting with what he considers a growing lack of cohesion in the Atlanta community.
AJT: How have things changed in the Jewish community in Atlanta over the years?
Botnick: A large percentage of the growth of the Jewish community in Atlanta has been people moving in from somewhere else. They don’t know or have the sense of what the community was, when we were all working together. So, each organization is striving to work for itself and not necessarily for the purpose of creating a community. That’s good and that’s bad. It’s the price you pay for growing.
I was talking to a friend of mine who is a former official of an important financial institution and I was trying to get him interested in supporting an important philanthropic project in Africa, and he said to me, ‘I am an American Jew, not a Jewish American; I am only interested in helping Jews in America. I am not interested in support based on mankind.’ It’s a difference concept than how I was raised.
AJT: When one reads the Jewish Georgian, one is struck by the emphasis on the past and on personal reminiscence. Is that part of your concern?
Botnick: I would like the people to know the background of how we got to where we are. I had an article in the paper two or three issues ago about this Jew in 1915 who was elected president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce even though there were almost no Jews who were members at the time. Nobody today even knows his name. He was a major factor in the Hebrew Orphans’ Home and all the organizations then. Atlanta has had 60 mayors, but only one Jewish mayor. Shouldn’t there be some place where the contributions of the Jewish community to the growth and progress of the city of Atlanta are highlighted? Would it not be appropriate to somehow recognize that? And to somehow have a place where we can show our appreciation to the city of Atlanta for allowing us to be here and to prosper?
AJT: How did your personal values lead you to help found The Temple’s night shelter for the homeless?
Botnick: Our previous president of The Temple said, ‘No, we don’t want a homeless shelter. We will wind up with winos sleeping on our lawn,’ and the board turned down the idea. When I became president, Alvin Sugarman, the rabbi then, [asked] ‘Will you try again?’ and I said ‘yes.’ I presented the board an outline of what I wanted to accomplish.
One of the points I made was that we should put into practice the teachings of Judaism. I thought that members of The Temple could get an experiential education of what it means to be Jewish as opposed to a theoretical education. And 10 days later we opened a shelter. And that’s how the shelter came into existence. Instead of just saying the prayers, it’s the implementation. Judaism is in the doing.
AJT: In this age of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, some printed newspapers, Jewish or not, are having trouble surviving. Does that concern you?
Botnick: That’s not what concerns me. What concerns me is the lack of desire of the citizenry to understand what’s happening. They’re looking for buzz words. There’s a difference between study and learning.
Learning to me is the implication that there is an answer. Study means that you gather data that you can draw on to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. We should be promoting Jewish learning, not promoting Jewish study.
To me there’s a clear difference between the two. We are in a situation where we are looking for the answers without understanding where that answer comes from.
AJT: During your lifetime you seem to have been around whenever good things were happening. How would you like your work to be remembered?
Botnick: I don’t care how I’ll be remembered. If I’ve earned it, I’ll be remembered; if I didn’t, I won’t be. My motivation is to try to make the world a little better. They are not going to know who Marvin Botnick was 10 years from now. But what difference does it make? The fact is, if people are better off because of what Marvin Botnick did, that’s the only thing that’s important.