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A More Welcoming Atlanta

By Eric's Blog

I spent a few days in Pittsburgh last week. This was not a visit to see family or friends. I was a participant on the 23rd annual Atlanta Leadership, Involvement, Networking, Knowledge (LINK) trip which hand selects 110 Atlanta leaders to travel together and learn about change from other cities. This year, LINK visited my home town of Pittsburgh with an agenda to explore places where Pittsburgh has done transformational and important work:

  • Driving Innovation: The City/University Partnership
  • P4 Equity Measures: The Hazelwood Green Site
  • The Hill District: Preserving Cultural Legacy and Fighting for the Soul of a Community
  • Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Cultural District
  • Building Welcoming Communities Through Interfaith Relationships

How surreal, 35 years later, to return to the city I so eagerly left as a young adult, to live in Atlanta and be part of building a city that was rising like a Phoenix in the south. The Pittsburgh I left was a city in decline where opportunity was rare, and where I never felt I could be part of shaping its future. The Atlanta I came to was growing, optimistic, risk-taking and had a Jewish community that I immediately felt a part of.

Here I was, back in this city which has become the envy of many cities around the world. A city that has transformed its economy from steel manufacturing to education and medicine, a city that has a vibrant arts community, that is a tremendous sports town, and that is embracing sustainability and a vibrant food culture. I also came back to a city that still has vital neighborhoods intertwined by great parks, and yes, an incredible Jewish community that in spite of experiencing the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history is only getting stronger and more connected.

Along with Bill Bolling, one of my long-time mentors and the former CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, I was asked to lead a session on making Atlanta a more welcoming community through relationships. Our panel was able to engage with leaders in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities who were all involved in Pittsburgh’s response to the tragedy at Congregation Tree of Life.

What they told us was that the relationships they had built before the tragedy was what allowed them to respond with such love and impact. All of us on the trip agreed that one of Atlanta’s great strengths is its network of faith groups. But we all agreed that the network could and should be stronger. From my vantage point, as a leader in the Jewish community, it was a reminder that not only do we have work to do across faiths, we also have a lot of work to do inside our own community.

We started some of that work over a year ago when many of our Jewish community leaders traveled to Israel together to build relationships and experience Israeli innovation.  It was a tremendous start. And even though Jewish Atlanta is spread out and doesn’t have the close, cohesive neighborhoods of a Pittsburgh, we have a growing population and an enviable infrastructure of synagogues, schools and organizations. Our assets are incredible.

Now we need to summon the will to reach across our ecosystem to demonstrate what welcoming looks like. We need to show up in force in the Atlanta interfaith community as participants and stakeholders. As Jews, we can be community models of social justice, generosity and resilience.

It took a trip back to my Pittsburgh neighborhood, 35 years later, to reconnect with the urgency of becoming more welcoming to our own people, while making Atlanta more welcoming to all. I will need help from all of you, and I know that together we can make it happen.

Celebrating Freedom in Tense Times

By Eric's Blog

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that antisemitism is on the rise around the globe. Fears once seen as “Europe’s problem” were stoked anew when the world’s oldest hatred found its way to my hometown of Pittsburgh this fall, and more recently as local incidents aroused concern in Atlanta.

The situation is concerning, but at Passover I remain profoundly joyful. My optimism rests on the incredible freedom we enjoy as Jews in America.

Our freedom is expressed in the abundance of creative and traditional Passover seders happening here in Atlanta. There’s the Downtown Seder at City Winery that brought musicians, artists, Jews and non-Jews together. There are women’s seders, hunger seders, sober seders, even a Unity seder where Jews and Muslims break matzah together. Once again at Ramah Darom, hundreds of families from all over enjoy communal seders and a chance to learn and explore Jewish life with top scholars and rabbis.

At my seder we used The Hartman Institute’s haggadahA Different Night, and we have a tradition I love of writing our names and the date on the inside cover. It’s how we chronicle the names of our “tribe” and remember the ones no longer with us.

As a ben chorin (free person) at Passover, I can express my Judaism without constraint. Yet I also know that I am never “free” of memory, or of the responsibility to care for my people, particularly when their freedoms are at stake. That is the precious gift America bestows on all of us.

Have a sweet and meaningful Passover!

Ten Things in Jewish Atlanta That Spark Joy

By Eric's Blog

It’s Adar, the month when the Talmud says our joy increases. I’ve now lived in Atlanta for fifteen years and they really have been full of Jewish joy with weddings, b’nai mitzvah, Shabbats, baby namings, holidays, Israel@70, plus hundreds of conversations and encounters with you! At Federation we talk a lot these days about creating more Jewish places and being a radically welcoming community. Atlanta has been all that and more for me. Looking back on fifteen years, I thought it was time to share my own idiosyncratic list of welcoming Jewish events and places that fill me with joy. So here, in alphabetical order, are ten beautiful Jewish Atlanta places, events, and things I love.

Atlanta Havurah
About six years ago, a group of mostly Intown and Decatur families formed a havurah (fellowship group) to share Shabbat and the high holidays, lifecycle events, and learning. Some of us were already members of synagogues, and some of us were not. What we had in common was a wish to create an interactive, family-friendly worship experience that drew from the best of Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox traditions. The Atlanta Havurah drew us close and continues to give our kids and our families a joyous place to be Jewish.

Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
The month of February can be a slog, but not in Jewish Atlanta. We have the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival make the month fly by. For 21 days we get to binge on incredible films from around the world, all presenting a unique Jewish take on life. I love the mad scramble to order tickets online, and the conversations that happen when we stand on line waiting to go into the theatre and run into friends and neighbors. AJFF makes Atlanta feel like a small town. It’s a treasure.

Atlanta Jewish Music Festival
How incredible is it that Atlanta has a Jewish film festival, a book festival, and a music festival? My friend Russell Gottschalk created AJMF right out of Emory University, and in less than 10 years he turned it into an engine for fresh, unexpected and vibrant Jewish music. Russell’s vision for AJMF was to engage the whole community, which he did with teen open mic events, and concert venues in synagogues, coffee shops and clubs. Now, under a wonderful new director, Joe Alterman, AJMF is still innovating and building new audiences and expanding my mind about what Jewish music can be.

The Breman’s Bearing Witness Series
Atlanta’s small and dwindling Holocaust survivor community is precious to all of us, and The Breman Jewish Heritage Museum’s Bearing Witness series brings honor to them. The series features Holocaust survivors, all Atlanta residents, who share their personal stories of survival, endurance and resilience. I never fail to be inspired by the optimism that still shines through as they bear witness to one of darkest periods in modern history. As someone who works at the Selig Center, it is a joy to see the lessons of the Holocaust come to life for new generations when school groups visit The Breman on a daily basis.

JKG B’nei Mitzvah
Full disclosure: my wife, Ana Robbins, is the Founding Director of Jewish Kids Groups (JKG). That said, I dearly love JKG’s unique approach to bar and bat mitzvah. As a different kind of Hebrew school, JKG has a different take on bar and bat mitzvah. At JKG, bar and bat mitzvah is a two-year program of small group study that culminates in a group B’nei Mitzvah event. The kids come of age as a close group, learning together and doing individual projects. Some families choose to have a conventional synagogue service with Torah-reading; others, who are not members of synagogues, craft their own personalized experience or take the group option. How cool that this model started right in Atlanta.

Kiddush Lunch at Congregation Shearith Israel
What can I say? Congregation Shearith Israel is my shul and I love it. Kiddush lunch at Shearith Israel is a delicious reward for coming to services — the place where my Intown village joins together for fellowship, schmoozing and fressing (Yiddish for eating). Want to know who had a baby, who got engaged, whose parents are moving to Atlanta? You find out everything at kiddush. Shearith Israel has had some ups and downs, but today it’s bursting with young families and newcomers, thanks to our dynamic and caring rabbi, Ari Kaiman. For me, Shearith Israel is the essence of community.

Limmud Atlanta+Southeast
I’ve written many times about Limmud Atlanta+Southeast, our immersive, inclusive, and multi-generational learning community that happens over Labor Day weekend up at Ramah Darom. Limmud runs 100% on volunteer power and is the template I love for Jewish engagement. The sessions are eclectic, from text study to making pita in an outdoor oven. We do yoga, share meals, hear great music, go hiking and just hang out. Everyone in my family, from teenage Sasha, to my uncle Bill, who is in his nineties, loves it. Limmud proves what can happen when you empower passionate people to create the programs they want, to their own specifications.

Israel Leadership Learning Journey
Of all my recent trips to Israel, last year’s Community Leadership Learning Journey was a standout experience. With support from a wonderful donor, we took a group of 70 Atlanta Jewish community leaders on a unique trip to Israel, not to be tourists, but to encounter each other. Our work on The Front Porch created a mindset to build bonds as community leaders, affirm and deepen our ties to Israel, and immerse ourselves in Israeli innovation. Through many deep and difficult conversations, we came to know each other and love each other. We returned with a commitment to continue respectful dialogue, to take each other’s calls, to assume the very best of each other, and keep our connections going. And we have! Our What’s App group continues, with weekly wishes for Shabbat shalom.

Shabbat on La Vista Road
Have you ever been in Toco Hills on Shabbat? Less than ten minutes from where I live, on any given Shabbat morning, you can witness a street scene that’s almost out of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Boasting at least seven congregations, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox, LaVista Road, the central street of Toco Hills, comes alive on Shabbat. Within the eruv (ritual enclosure permitting certain activities on Shabbat) families and individuals greet each other on their way to synagogue, walk home for lunch, and return again for Mincha and Maariv services. You’ll see kids racing down LaVista to catch up with their friends. You’ll see clusters of parents pushing kids in strollers, even men wearing long black coats and shtreimels (fur hat worn by some observant men), creating a glorious street scene that’s unique in all of Jewish Atlanta.

Sukkot at Oakhurst Garden
My beloved friend, Naomi Rabkin, z”l, was taken from this world too soon. Earlier this month we marked her first yahrzeit (anniversary of a death). When Naomi lived in Atlanta she not only managed Limmud Atlanta, she was the spark that created The Atlanta Jewish Food Alliance, the first Jewish community supported agriculture group, and the first public sukkah at Oakhurst Community Garden.  During Sukkot, Naomi turned Oakhurst Garden into a magical Jewish gan eden (garden of eden). She packed the week with potluck picnics, Sukkot sleepovers, and a Sukkot baking competition. For some Jews and their loved ones, it was their first ever experience of a sukkah and the wonderful customs of our harvest .

Modeling Inclusion at Camp

By Eric's Blog

At the tail end of January we celebrated our local champions for inclusion at Jewish Abilities Alliance’s 5th annual Power of One event. Over 350 people turned out to honor 31 Power of One award recipients and to kick off Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) in February. It was no surprise to me that so many of the honorees work at and support inclusion at our region’s Jewish overnight camps and day camps. Our camps are places where disabilities are not seen as obstacles, where bullying is never tolerated, and where all kids are liberated from the cliques and social rules that operate during the school year. In this way, camp is a sweet taste of olam ha ba, the perfected world we yearn for.

I got my first real glimpse of what inclusion looks like at Camp Barney Medintz when I worked in the kitchen. It was the best job I ever had at camp and it taught me what’s really involved in feeding several hundred campers and staff members three times a day — incredible focus and hard work! To see Scott Hyman, who is on the kitchen staff, honored for his leadership, competence and strong work ethic at Power of One, filled me with pride.

One of the most moving moments at Power of One was when Rachel Krigsman, a counselor at Ramah Darom, was honored for her support for Briah Margolias, a camper with special health needs and one of the most medically fragile children ever to attend camp. Little Briah came up on stage to give Rachel a hug and a bouquet of flowers, and then told the audience how her counselor made the camp experience wonderful for her. For Briah and the entire Ramah Darom community, this was a beautiful example of how true inclusion erases stigma and builds compassion.

In the City Camp counselor Brent Rogers was honored for his support of day campers with special needs. Lotem Eilon received an award for inclusion programs at Camp Coleman. And the 2019 Robyn Berger Emerging Leader Award went Sarah Scheuer for her inclusion efforts at MJCCA Day Camps.

I recently became aware of another ally for inclusion at camp, Atlanta couple Matt Bronfman and Ronit Walker.  They have been deeply impacted both by Ronit’s deceased sister, Naomi Walker, who because of her physical disabilities was unable to attend summer camp as an adolescent, and their daughter Kyra, who loves Camp Barney Medintz and has worked as counselor in their Chalutzim program for campers with special needs for the past two summers. Campers come to Chalutzim with a wide range of abilities, and the staff works closely with each camper to ensure a great experience. Their daughter observed some gaps in the program and felt it could be stronger. So, the family met with Federation and talked with us about ways to improve the program. Together we shaped a substantial gift to restructure the program and hire a director dedicated solely to Chalutzim. The gift will also support staff training and inclusion all year long and create a bridge between MJCCA day camps and Camp Barney.

Our camps are places that don’t merely pay lip service to inclusion, they model it! Let’s not forget that Camp Ramah Darom launched its Yofi program for Jewish families with children on the autism spectrum years ago. It has become a national model for inclusion in a camp setting. Our Jewish Abilities Alliance has reached more than 1,000 day camp and overnight camp counselors and staff through its trainings, so that these values of compassion, understanding and sensitivity endure all year long.

From my years as CEO of Camp Twin Lakes and directing the Isabella Freedman retreat center, to being a camper and a counselor myself, I’ve seen miracles at camp. What I saw at Power of One provided even more shining reasons why I’ll always be a camp guy!

Making Education a Priority

By Eric's Blog

Yesterday was my birthday, and as the years race by, my birthday always puts me in a contemplative mood. I’ve been thinking hard lately about our community’s commitment to Jewish education. Atlanta’s formal Jewish education landscape is remarkable with a range of excellent Jewish day schools and preschools, 40+ synagogues, learning opportunities at the MJCCA, organizations like Limmud, and one of the largest Melton School programs in the nation. Our informal Jewish learning landscape is also impressive, with JumpSpark Teen, Jewish day camps, overnight camps, PJ Library, Jewish Kids Groups, Hillels, BBYO, Birthright Israel, Jewish Student Union and more.

But inevitably I start to think about the thousands of Atlantans who identify Jewishly yet fall outside the education mainstream. They’re missing out on so much — and worse, they don’t even know what they’re missing! Synagogues, the MJCCA, and Jewish camp are not part of their Jewish experience, and their estrangement from Jewish learning makes them feel like strangers. Tragically, many don’t believe they’re “Jewish” enough to be accepted as learners. As a tradition that prizes learning and commands us to welcome the stranger, we have to do better!

I believe that our Jewish ecosystem gets exponentially stronger when Jewish knowledge increases. So I have to ask, what would happen if Atlanta leveraged its strengths, truly doubled down on Jewish education and made it a priority? How can we improve the quality and the delivery of Jewish education, both in congregational and non-congregational settings? (By the way, I also believe we need to tell a better story about the good things that are already happening here).

More pointedly, how can we re-imagine Jewish education for those who have not been exposed to it? How can we make after school Jewish education more compelling for those who have tried it and fallen away? And what can we learn from successful church communities that use mid-week family experiences (and serve dinner!) to educate and engage?

Looking inside our own ecosystem, what role can our day schools, camps and the MJCCA play to meet new learners where they are? What would immersive Family Camp experiences, with opportunities for family story-telling, look like? How can we create a through-line that connects Jewish education and experiences from pre-school through afterschool, and from camp to teen? These are some of the provocative questions we’re asking.

David Bryfman is a thought leader in Jewish education who has really shaped my thinking. He says that for Jewish education to be successful, it needs to have, at its core, a mission to make people happy. I love and live by that idea. If there isn’t joy in Jewish learning, it will not stick.

Right now at Federation we’re beginning to explore some of these ideas and dream about how we might catalyze new energy around Jewish education in Atlanta. We’re meeting with experts in education around the country to learn as much as we can about educational innovation. I’ll keep you posted on our thinking and our progress. And if you have a great idea that could expand our thinking and bring joy to Jewish learning, I hope you’ll give me a call.

What 2018 Taught Me

By Eric's Blog

We’re inching up to the start of the secular new year, so let the reflections and resolutions begin! As for me, I’m looking back on 2018 with an eye towards how I have changed. Here are some questions I’ve reflected on for the past year.

Who Did I Learn From?
Mr. Rogers was my rebbe in 2018. This remarkable man, who was literally my neighbor when I grew up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, reminded me that there is still good in the world, that we have to look for it, celebrate it and create more of it. In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, Mr. Rogers’ outlook sustained my spirit and refocused me on what matters. Returning to Pittsburgh several weeks after the tragedy, I could see that what endures are human relationships and acts of kindness. The simplicity and truth of Mr. Roger’s message is profound. By the way, if you haven’t yet seen the documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about the life of Fred Rogers, don’t miss it.

How Have I Changed?
I’ve become much more realistic about what I can and cannot change. This year I will spend less time on the latter. I’m becoming more comfortable with the fact that I can’t make everyone happy all the time. Living with this truth and refocusing my energy on what is possible is a big change for me.

What Delighted Me?
What truly delights me is the Federation professional team. Together we’ve come through a year of inward-looking analysis and discussion through The Front Porch. We’ve learned how to live with uncertainty about where The Front Porch initiative would take us. Now, with firm vision of where the community needs to go, and the role that Federation plays in Jewish Atlanta, we are feeling optimistic and more focused about our work. We’ve looked at our internal organizational structure and created new ways facilitate cross-team collaboration. Job descriptions have been rewritten to reflect the priorities of our five impact areas: Inspiring More Jewish Journeys; Rising Up Higher to Strengthen Ourselves and Our World; Making More Jewish Places; Moving to Global Jewish Peoplehood; and Creating Radically Welcoming Spaces. We’re primed and ready for a productive 2019.

What’s the Most Important Conversation I Had?
After my daughter Sasha’s bat mitzvah in November we sat down together and had a conversation about tzedakah (righteous giving). I suggested that Sasha set aside 10% of the money she received for her bat mitzvah for personal giving. Sasha knows that I’ve been a fundraising professional for much of my life, and she certainly understands how our family prioritizes tzedakah and mitzvot, but nevertheless this was a complex conversation. Ultimately, we decided to open a Donor-Advised Fund at Federation in Sasha’s name. She’ll make her own decisions about where she wants to direct her giving. It will be interesting to see how it empowers her to lead a life of philanthropy.

Did I Step Out of My Comfort Zone?
I stepped out of my comfort zone this year asking for bigger gifts from our donors with the capacity to make big things happen. It meant cultivating a personal mindset to be unafraid. Asking for money is hard. Asking people to stretch for opportunities that excite them and reflect their priorities can be thrilling. It meant listening deeply to what donors had to say and being ready to show them the potential impact and relevance of their gift. Many of these solicitations broke new ground for me and for the donor, and they always deepened relationships.

Climbing the Holy Ladder

By Eric's Blog

My daughter Sasha Irene became a bat mitzvah (obligated to perform the commandments) two Shabbat mornings ago at Congregation Shearith Israel, and just as everyone warned me, it was a day of indescribable pride. Sasha’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, is epic— the story of Jacob’s dream, and a ladder that stretches up from earth to heaven, and of Rachel’s desperate wish to bear children. In her d’var torah (bat mitzvah speech) Sasha talked about the values of righteousness, integrity, and being good to others. Before a congregation filled with friends and family, including many from my hometown of Pittsburgh who are still reeling from the October synagogue shooting, Sasha wrestled with an ancient text, teaching us the difference between what we want and what we need.

The congregation’s songs and prayers helped Sasha ascend her holy ladder as a young woman who is now old enough to be responsible for the mitzvot and old enough to follow dreams of her own. I cannot predict where those dreams will take my daughter, but I am confident that they will include great acts of generosity and philanthropy.

Sasha has volunteered and given back for most of her life in ways that are meaningful to her.  She knows this is not just what the Robbins family does, it’s what Jews do, and that righteousness is what drives me every day in my work at Federation. I see myself as a relationship builder. In that role I love to sense and discover where there are opportunities to match a person’s energy with a philanthropic opportunity. We talk a lot about being a Philanthropic Champion here at Federation. It means listening closely in conversations for clues about someone’s true passion, and then asking.

Conversations like these can result in acts of philanthropy big and small.

I know a couple who is passionate about Israel and who wants everyone to experience the Jewish homeland. I asked them to help us bring 70 Jewish leaders from Atlanta to Israel last winter and they did. The experience this group had traveling, learning and struggling together with the complexities of modern Israel has literally changed the way we interact now that we are all back home.

I know a woman in Atlanta who lost her girlhood friend several years ago and was inspired to steward a Jewish foundation in memory of all that her friend cherished. In the name of her friend, she has done untold good in our community.

I know a successful man who worries about people who are too poor to afford air conditioning during hot Atlanta summers. Every year he distributes free electric box fans to cool them off.

And I know a couple who are ardent about the way social justice work creates new pathways to Jewish engagement for young people. They brought Repair the World to Atlanta, to bring meaningful service opportunities to young Jews in our city.

Where will you give your time and your resources? Today is Giving Tuesday, a day when everyone has an opportunity to be a philanthropic champion. It’s not just about monetary donations. Pick a cause you care about and learn their mission. Volunteer, or serve on a board. Like Sasha, you are old enough to do mitzvot, and more than ready to discover the deep satisfaction of righteous giving.

What Binds Us is Bigger Than What Divides Us

By Eric's Blog

I’m writing this month’s blog from Israel where Mark and Linda Silberman, Renee Evans, Margo and Larry Gold, Seth Greenberg and I are attending the 70th annual General Assembly of Jewish Federations, better known as The GA. It’s my third trip to Israel this year and, as always, it’s great to be home. I arrived feeling buoyed by all the ways our Atlanta community has built stronger bridges to Israel this year and how we are moving towards what our Front Porch work calls Global Jewish Peoplehood.

But I wouldn’t be an honest reporter if I didn’t acknowledge that this year’s GA has generated some controversy. For one thing, there’s the conference theme, Israel and the Diaspora: We Need to Talk. Some feel it focuses only on a liberal critique of what divides us, ignoring the attitudes and realities of life in Israel today. And there’s unhappiness about the conference location, Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem. We are in Israel to honor 70 years of Israeli independence. However, this is the first time in many years that the GA has convened Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. Now that the current U.S. administration has officially moved the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, some feel it’s an insult.

I’ll reserve judgement until the GA is over, but I believe deeper dialogue is precisely what we need.

Before we left for Israel I heard from some of you about a provocative  Op Ed in The Jerusalem Post by Caroline Glick, a journalist, author, and former foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. As if the divide in American politics isn’t painful enough, her sharp critique of the GA was aimed directly at the Jewish communal world, and it hurt.

Politics aside, I often worry that the biggest challenge facing our community is simply getting folks to pay attention. The fact that Jews in Atlanta read, question and are immersed in the current events of our discourse makes me proud, and it undoubtedly makes our community stronger.

It brings to mind the many initiatives we’ve undertaken to deepen our ties with Israel — the Israeli Innovation Accelerator program for women, the English language Kefiada day camp we ran in Yokneam and Megiddo this past summer, our Israel@70 Celebration, our five successful missions to Israel, and the remarkable Shinshinim program which has exploded from two post-high school Israelis educators who lived here in 2018-19, to eight young Israelis this year! These young Israelis taught our kids in our day schools and preschools, in our camps and at community events. They shared so much about life in Israel, about their commitment to the IDF when they return, and their pride in Israeli resilience and innovation.

But it’s a two-way street. Atlanta taught the Shinshinim so much about American Judaism. Last weekend at a barbecue to welcome our eight new Shinshinim. Jodi Mansbach, our Chief Impact Officer, asked them, what was the most surprising thing about life in Atlanta. It wasn’t the comforts of Atlanta suburbs or the abundance of American supermarkets. “We had no idea there were so many ways to be Jewish!” they said. Let that sink in for a minute.

I know in my heart and in my soul that what binds us is much stronger than what divides us. So yes, if it was up to me, I would have chosen a different title for this year’s GA. But in the end, the meeting will succeed or fail based on the willingness of Israelis and Diaspora Jews to engage, to open their minds and to widen their perspectives. We have a long “to do” list here at home, but getting the relationship between Diaspora and Israeli Jews right for the next hundred years will have a defining impact on the collective future. Let’s keep talking!

Give Us Shelter

By Eric's Blog

It’s just about impossible not to love Sukkot. The seven-day Jewish “festival of booths” which comes on the heels of Yom Kippur, celebrates the harvest and the miraculous protection G-d provided for our people when we left Egypt. We celebrate by building, decorating, and dwelling in shelters called sukkahs, fragile little huts whose roofs are made of natural vegetation and deliberately open to the sky. Here in Atlanta, the weather is incredible and we’re still harvesting the last tomatoes, peppers, and herbs that will be on our Sukkot menu. Ana, Sasha, and I enjoy having friends and family over for meals in our sukkah and we love to go sukkah hopping — filling our dance card all week at the homes of friends. Sukkot is glorious, but the fragility of the sukkah also illuminates the ups and downs of life. And nobody knows that better than Atlanta’s homeless population. For them, late September means it will soon be shelter season, as most Atlanta shelters open to the homeless October through April.

Shelter is elemental. Hurricane Florence showed last week how vulnerable our homes are to extreme weather. That’s why I’m especially proud of our Jewish community’s work to rise up around homelessness in Atlanta and the way we responded again to people displaced by the hurricane. My congregation, Shearith Israel, has run a women’s shelter, now called Rebecca’s Tent, for the past 32 years. It began in 1983 during a frigid winter in Atlanta when Shearith Israel’s rabbi realized that homeless women needed help. He approached Helen Spiegel, a member of the congregation whose family had fled to the United States in the wake of the Holocaust. Helen’s intimate experience with displacement helped establish a safe home with beds for seven “guests.” Today, Rebecca’s Tent supports thirteen women and provides ongoing supportive services and job training for them to build independent lives. Last season the shelter helped 60% of their guests transition to employment and more stable housing.

It takes more than 400 volunteers a year to keep Rebecca’s Tent running. Volunteers serve meals, prepare sack lunches, clean the kitchen and prepare the evening meal for residents. My daughter Sasha and I have done it together and it’s always a meaningful experience. Volunteer by calling Tasho Wesley, 404-873-3147, and Rebecca’s Tent will find a way for you to get involved.

The Temple’s Zaban Paradies Center (ZPC) on Peachtree Street also fills an important niche by helping Atlanta’s homeless couples find shelter. Founded in 1984 as the Temple Zaban Night Shelter, it was the first and only shelter that did not separate homeless couples, whether married or not. Today the ZPC assists couples who want to transition from homelessness to resettlement, providing case management services, laundry, financial management training, a well-stocked clothing closet, and more. Here too, there are many ways to help — volunteers can teach computer skills, they cook and/or serve evening meals, mentor residents on financial literacy, and help find employment opportunities. These are beautiful opportunities to perform a mitzvah. Sign up to volunteer here.

While Atlanta’s overall homeless population has dropped, high poverty and income inequality make our city one of the neediest in America, especially for veterans and families. Gentrification and rising Intown rents are driving people into extended stay motels and the shelter system. Life is fragile!

The rabbis tell us that a sukkah must be stable enough to live in for a week, but sufficiently unstable so that it will not be mistaken for a permanent home. Permanence, according to the Talmud, is conveyed by the ability to live a full and dignified life year-round, not just for a week. This season as we celebrate G-d’s bounty and share our good fortune under the sukkah, let us never forget the cry of Isaiah to “take the poor into your homes.” Dignity. Permanence. Independence. Let these values inform the prayers we say during Sukkot and all year long.

Becoming Our Best Selves

By Eric's Blog

These waning days of the month of Elul signal that Rosh Hashanah and 5779 will soon be here. I look forward to this season of introspection that runs up until Yom Kippur. And I love when after midnight, on the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, Jews begin reciting Selichot, Hebrew prayers of forgiveness, putting us collectively into a mindset of setting intentions for the coming year. Notice that I said, intentions.  I make a distinction between the resolutions we make on December 31, and the authentically Jewish way of embracing change at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As Jews we commit to change and the repair of relationships through tshuvah, which is not simply repentance, but also the revelatory idea of returning to our true and best selves. This is how Iframe my soul work for the high holidays.

What does tshuvah and repair mean for our wider Jewish community? How does our collective work this past year on The Front Porch reveal where we can grow and how we must also return and be faithful to our core values? Here’s my sense of what we can build on, using our strengths to become an even more vibrant and relevant Jewish Atlanta.

  • Keep our commitments to strengthen each other.
    How to build on it: The Community Campaign is the engine that powers all of Jewish Atlanta. It’s how we engage, care for, connect and strengthen each other. So, we must prioritize the unrestricted campaign and widen our donor base, but we also need bigger vision for generating generosity. I want to see us grow Jewish philanthropy in Atlanta through legacy giving and investments in Atlanta Jewish Foundation. We’ll keep diversifying ways for donors to support their personal interests in the Jewish community. This is what it means for Federation to become a Philanthropic Champion for the whole community.

Our institutional infrastructure is impressive, but we must be open to using brick and mortar spaces in new ways — what programs can we locate in our synagogues during the week, in our day schools after 3:00 pm? Let’s think about redistributing Jewish services to bring them closer to where people already are. How can we leverage technology to bring people together and strengthen neighborhood connections where people already live? How can we deploy more people as warm connectors and “concierges” who can expand our outreach. We have amazing camps — let’s send more kids there, and while we’re at it, let’s create more camp options for immersive Jewish summers.

  • Open our minds to innovation.
    How to build on it: Atlanta already has an innovative culture. Our Jewish community has caught the spirit and is becoming a laboratory for the new ideas and initiatives Jewish Atlanta needs. Let’s keep nourishing promising prototypes and awarding startup grants to local innovators. Here at Federation we hold a monthly FedLab to generate new ideas, we’ve hired our first ever VP of Innovation, and we’ve created two elementATL co-working spaces on the BeltLine and in Dunwoody to foster collaboration and idea generation.

We must turn up the juice on how we welcome people and become a radically welcoming Jewish community! I want to see openness and welcome become the prevailing culture in all our organizations. It means moving from thinking there is just one way to be Jewish, or that affiliation and membership are the only ways to measure engagement, to new options. Let’s explore pay-as-you-go models for engagement to put living Jewishly in reach for everyone. I’d love to see more families find scholarship support for our day schools, and more families gaining access to supplemental Jewish education. Let’s also change our language so we’re not just talking to ourselves, but instead inviting all Jews and their loved ones to learn, participate and feel part of our community.

  • Deepen our connections with Israel and Jews around the world.
    How to build on it: In the coming year we’ll see more people-to-people partnerships with our global Jewish community affirming that Jews are all one people, one family. We’re committed to care for our people, wherever they live. We’re taking our second Atlanta mission to Cuba and Atlanta students volunteer to be summer counselors in Eastern European Jewish camps that build Jewish identity. We’ll use Israeli innovation and resilience to inspire us. Starting in October a new Atlanta/Israel Accelerator is helping a select group of women launch startups for the good of the whole community, using Israeli style tactics, and business models. We’ve expanded the Shinshinim (young educators) program from two students last year, to eight students. They’ve just arrived in Atlanta to connect our schools and camps with the vibrant culture and spirit of Israel. They’re living with host families all around town and their enthusiasm is infectious. And how cool is it that the Maccabi Games will be hosted at our own MJCCA at the end of July 2019.

These are not “resolutions,” they are intentions for how I want to make 5779 a year of Jewish community health, fulfillment, prosperity and growth. Our Jewish Atlanta is magnificent — brimming with opportunities for spiritual growth, service and connection. For these coming holy days, my hope is that every one of us finds a pathway and a place for nourishment, wholeness, and renewal right here in this community.

Ana, Sasha and I wish you, shanah tovah — all the sweetness the new year can bring!