Rabbi Tracks Signposts Along Life’s Journey
OpinionFrom Where I Sit

Rabbi Tracks Signposts Along Life’s Journey

Atlanta native Alvin Sugarman of The Temple takes a ride through personal and community history.

Dave Schechter

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Rabbi Alvin Sugarman was instrumental in bringing Atlanta a nondenominational community mikvah, MACoM, where “the water does not quench the fire. It ignites and brightens the soul, that spark of G-d that dwells within each of us.”
Rabbi Alvin Sugarman was instrumental in bringing Atlanta a nondenominational community mikvah, MACoM, where “the water does not quench the fire. It ignites and brightens the soul, that spark of G-d that dwells within each of us.”


“Addresses are so much more than a street number.”

Starting with childhood, think about addresses of significance in your life and appreciate the wisdom in the above comment made by Rabbi Alvin Sugarman as he narrated a tour of the Atlanta he knew growing up.

I tagged along as my wife, the content manager of AIB-TV (formerly known as Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters), drove and interviewed Rabbi Sugarman while a videographer recorded his memories.

This son of Atlanta was born in June 1938, when the city’s Jewish population was 12,000, one-tenth its estimated size today.

Seven years earlier, The Temple, the city’s oldest Jewish congregation (founded in 1867 as the Hebrew Benevolent Society), had relocated from the intersection of South Pryor and Richardson streets to its current Peachtree Street home.

“As a city and as a community we evolve and change, and that’s what makes us human,” Rabbi Sugarman said. “Atlanta was a little village compared with what it is today.”

In his 78 years, Rabbi Sugarman has seen the Jewish community migrate from neighborhoods south of downtown north to Morningside, Buckhead and Toco Hills and then into the suburbs.

Over four hours he told stories about Jewish life in Atlanta, his path to becoming a rabbi, and experiences both poignant and humorous.

The tour included the addresses of apartments where he lived on Ponce de Leon and Boulevard; where an elementary school stood on North Avenue; where his parents operated a store, the Southern 5 & 10, on Georgia Avenue; and various places where he played and engaged in youthful mischief.

“It is amazing, when you really think about a life, the things that stick with you,” he said.

Rabbi Sugarman recalled the last kiss he received from his mother, who died in December 1943 of breast cancer, and talked about his father, who struggled with mental illness until he died of heart disease in January 1964 at age 71.

“The older you get, the buildings that were so much of your life evaporate and morph into something else,” Rabbi Sugarman said as we traveled on Ponce.

A fast-food restaurant was the site of a barbershop, a church formerly the location of a movie theater (where he received an early lesson in unrequited love), and a shopping center sits where the Atlanta Crackers minor-league baseball team played.

Rabbi Sugarman also recounted his courtship of Barbara Herman, who hailed from Jackson, Miss., and was in Atlanta visiting family.

They met on a Sunday. He proposed that Thursday. “I knew a good thing when I saw it,” he joked. They married three months later, and, 52 years on, the Sugarmans are the parents of two daughters and are grandparents four times over.

He did not set out to be a rabbi. At Emory he studied business. Years later, he recognizes events that steered him toward his vocation.

As a 5-year-old, he was told that G-d needed his mother in heaven.

As an 8- or 9-year-old, he felt Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s voice addressing him directly during a High Holiday service at The Temple.

After his confirmation at age 16, he delivered a sermon at a teen Shabbat program on “religion as a source of comfort during your darkest hours,” after which a woman approached and told him how moved she was by his words.

Three weeks after their marriage in 1965, the newlyweds met for lunch at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. The groom told his bride that he wanted to exchange life as a businessman for rabbinical school at age 27.

“Other than getting married, it’s the best decision I ever made,” Rabbi Sugarman said.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. After rabbinical school, Rabbi Sugarman returned to The Temple as a rabbi in 1971 and, after Rabbi Rothschild’s death in 1974, served as the senior rabbi until 2004.

Now, as Rabbi Emeritus Sugarman writes a spiritual biography, he can follow a map of his journey formed by addresses that are, indeed, so much more than numbers.

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