South Georgia Shuls Earn Places in Book of Life
Rosh Hashanah

South Georgia Shuls Earn Places in Book of Life

After years of declining attendance, a synagogue in Waycross is seeing an uptick in visitors for the High Holidays.

About 15 to 20 people will gather for High Holidays in the Waycross Hebrew Center, built more than 60 years ago to hold 100 worshippers.
About 15 to 20 people will gather for High Holidays in the Waycross Hebrew Center, built more than 60 years ago to hold 100 worshippers.

In the beginning, they would gather in one another’s houses for Friday night services. Gradually, the number of Jewish people scattered across South Georgia increased enough for them to build synagogues or rent buildings in their own communities. Larger congregations like those in Valdosta and Albany called rabbis and started religious schools. And during the High Holidays they welcomed home those who had grown up and moved away for jobs, college or other opportunities.

For Yom Kippur, Lisa Duffey and her two children will make the four-hour drive from Carrollton to Waycross to spend the weekend with her family there and worship in the Waycross Hebrew Center.

Her father will drive up from Florida, her cousins will come from other counties, and everyone will join her 87-year-old grandfather, Al Jacobson.

In the past, the congregation engaged a student from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary for the High Holidays, but not this year. Conducting the services will be Waycross native Rich Ruskin, “who’s very educated in Judaism” and who’s retired and coming from Atlanta with his son and granddaughter, Jacobson said.

Maybe 15 or 20 people will attend.

For Rosh Hashanah, local people will bring dairy dishes the first day. Assuming the recovery from Hurricane Irma is sufficient, Jacobson will drive to Jacksonville to buy kosher meat for the second day’s sandwiches.

Former Atlantan Rabbi Rachael Bregman, shown in 2015, works not only to serve Brunswick’s Congregation Beth Tefilloh from the pulpit, but also to build connections with the non-Jewish community.

“On Friday night, when we light the lights, we will talk about people in the past,” he said. The number of members has dropped so that usually on Friday night there aren’t enough people to make a minyan. Jacobson’s nephew, who comes to Waycross from Camden County, usually leads the services.

“When I go back there, I feel full,” Duffey said. “I’m sad for my grandfather that the numbers are dwindling, but there’s such a sweet energy. It feels more authentic than any synagogue I’ve found in Atlanta. I’ve been taught how forgiving, loving and supportive G-d is, and that’s what I teach my children.”

When the Waycross Hebrew Center was formed in 1924, Jacobson’s father was the vice president, and the congregation worshipped in a rented building in downtown. Jews who were living in the towns around Waycross, such as Blackshear, Alma and Baxley, came for services and fellowship, and 48 families were involved.

Most members of the congregation, like the Jacobsons, were merchants. A rabbi would come from Valdosta for special occasions.

In 1952, the people in Waycross built a synagogue capable of seating 100 people, as well as a kosher kitchen and a social hall. A rabbi came from Valdosta to give religious instruction to the boys.

During Rosh Hashanah, downtown businesses in Waycross, even ones not owned by Jews, would close for two days, Jacobson said.

The number of congregation members began declining in the 1960s and ’70s. Jewish-owned businesses closed. Children often had no interest in running the family business, and if the business was a store, it had to compete with large national retailers.

Jacobson’s Department Store on Main Street in downtown Waycross closed in the 1970s when Duffey was 10. Her grandfather and father went into real estate. Lately, though, the number of people at the lay-led services is increasing.

“What’s interesting is that we have people who come to services who aren’t Jewish,” Jacobson said. “They’re just very interested in Judaism.”

Like the Jewish congregation in Waycross, the Fitzgerald Hebrew Congregation has no full-time rabbi — the only full-time rabbi was Nathan Kohen, who served from 1947 until his death in 1975.

Today, members employ a rabbinical student from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. For the past year, Rabbi Rafi Spitzer has traveled once a month to Fitzgerald, flying from LaGuardia to Savannah, renting a car and driving three hours to Ben Hill County. He preaches Friday nights and teaches for 2½ hours Saturday, “and I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback for my teaching,” he said.

His wife will join him in Fitzgerald for the holidays this month.

When he’s not there, the Friday night services are lay-led.

“It’s a long schlep from New York, but it never feels that long,” Rabbi Spitzer said. “It’s been a year, and it’s already starting to feel like my community. It feels like going home.”

The synagogue is in a renovated and updated former Methodist church, bought in 1939. The congregation formed in 1942.

This year three new stained-glass panes will be unveiled during services. Rabbi Spitzer is expecting about 120 people, though as many as 200 have attended in other years. Many people who grew up in Fitzgerald but moved away for college or jobs return for the holidays.

The congregation is made up of “committed, curious, loving people,” Spitzer said. “They’re a small bunch of hardy folks. And they really care about making their community as good as it can be.”

Fitzgerald resident Ed Kaminsky grew up attending synagogue with his family and friends, many of whom owned dry goods stores in Fitzgerald or in nearby towns. Of those businesses, only The Big Store in Tifton is still open.

Kaminsky’s father opened a pants manufacturing company in Fitzgerald in the 1930s. As a young man, Kaminsky moved to Atlanta, where he directed a plant making cloth. He has since moved back to his hometown.

“We may have standing room only at the holiday services,” he said. “We’ll have kosher meals every day. On Thursday there will be lunch and dinner, and Friday will have dinner. We’ll also have a bar and a social hour.”

While the number of Jews in Fitzgerald continues to shrink as people die, Kaminsky is hoping for new members, including the new manager of Ben Hill County, who is Jewish.

Jews began settling in Valdosta in the decades after the Civil War, but not until 1904 was there a large enough and observant enough group to incorporate as the Conservative Valdosta Hebrew Congregation.

Today, Valdosta is the only congregation within 100 miles with a full-time rabbi, Israel-born Rabbi Moshe Elbaz. The congregation meets in a synagogue that was built in 1962 and whose social hall and kitchen were renovated and updated in 2016.

On the Wednesday before Rosh Hashanah, this year Sept. 20, the congregation welcomes different dignitaries from the area who offer greetings for the holidays. Among those attending in the past were a district court judge and a library director.

At the end of Yom Kippur, the entire Valdosta community is invited for a full break-the-fast dinner, an event that has become a tradition.

The congregation also opens its doors to personnel from Moody Air Force Base.

Rabbi Elbaz is expecting 150 to 200 people at High Holiday services, more than the 65 or so who regularly attend. Of those members, maybe two dozen are people who converted to Judaism — and who traveled with the rabbi to Israel beforehand.

Some of those coming for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur will be Valdosta State University students or former members who grew up in Valdosta but moved away.

But members, not visitors, will blow the shofar and read the Torah, the rabbi said.

In Brunswick, Rabbi Rachael Bregman is a full-time rabbi who divides her time between caring for the 65 or so members of Congregation Beth Tefilloh and representing Judaism to the larger community.

She leads a seder during Passover that attracts Christians, is a member of a ministerial board, and helps organize a food and culture festival in March.

The congregation was formed in 1886, and the temple was built in 1890, dedicated by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the pioneer of Reform Judaism in America. Rabbi Bregman expects about 100 people for Rosh Hashanah, with 30 or so in the afternoon and 80 in the evening.

“Most people don’t come home for the holidays,” said Stacy Stell, the president of the synagogue. “They just celebrate wherever they are. But we have people who come from McIntosh County and from Savannah as well.”

Stell was the director of the synagogue’s religious school for eight to 10 years, and she said she took a group of kids through confirmation. She also said that in the past few years interest in religious instruction has waned among young families, a trend that concerns her.

Rabbi Phil Cohen lives in Greensboro, N.C., where his wife is the director of Jewish Family Services. He travels to Albany twice a month for services at B’nai Israel, a Reform synagogue. The other weeks, services are lay-led.

For the holidays, the synagogue doesn’t have a cantor, but it does have a professional quartet, with one member driving to southwest Georgia from New York to provide “exceptional music” for services, the rabbi said.

The congregation will recite Tashlich prayers together during Rosh Hashanah, and it will share food when people break their fasts after Yom Kippur. Though he has been going to Albany for less than a year, Rabbi Cohen said he has developed a feel for the congregation.

“The holidays are a magnet for any Jewish community,” the rabbi said. He plans to use the holidays to introduce himself to the full congregation, which includes 50 families.

Many of those families have adult children who will return to Albany for the High Holidays. “I’m going to use them to sketch out what I would like to see the congregation doing and how I would like it to mature over the next year,” Rabbi Cohen said. “I want to talk about how we can respond to the problems in Houston.”

The synagogue has a small religious school, and the rabbi said he has engaged with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss., to obtain a curriculum.

Businessman Steve Fink is the president of B’nai Israel. A native of Albany, Fink, 71, joined the synagogue in 1972 when he returned to town after attending college and working for a while.

When he was growing up, he said, the congregation had a full-time rabbi, a practice that continued until “the congregation dwindled and we couldn’t afford it.”

At B’nai Israel, Fink said, someone can be a member as long as he or she isn’t practicing another religion, regardless of whether that person is Jewish. A large number of members are married to non-Jews.

Most members are senior citizens, he said, and only three families have children in Sunday school.

“It’s difficult to get people to hold office,” Fink said. He is the president of the congregation for the third time and is entering the last year of his three-year term. “Getting older people to participate isn’t easy.”

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