I’m Newish & Jewish in ATL
By Jessica Soto
After living for many years in San Diego, California, with a strong Jewish commitment to tikkun olam but tenuous religious ties, my husband and I moved to Kerala, India for two years. He’s a software developer who can work remotely from anywhere. I’m a social worker with a strong interest in social justice and organizational change, who was taking some professional time off. In Kerala, we lived off a dirt road next to a Hindu temple, amidst all the color and clamor of South India. There are virtually no Jews in Kerala now, but we learned that the city’s “Jew Town” was once a vibrant neighborhood of foreign Jews in India. For three rupees (about 6 cents,) one could tour a Jewish synagogue built in 1567, learning the history of a vanished remnant community.
I have only lived in Atlanta for a few months, but my Jewish life has never been more interesting. One thing is already clear to me. This is a city of strong, socially conscious and connected women. They have led me to a rich and thriving life of social action and service.
My first connection in Atlanta happened before I even moved here. I was interested in working on the Stacey Abrams campaign, so I jumped right in as soon as we landed in Buckhead. While meeting with Mandy Wright, of Jewish Family & Career Services, I was bumped into Debbie Sumner who was organizing postcard writing parties for local campaigns. Debbie connected me to many local Facebook pages, invited me to political events, and welcomed me into their circle right there in Starbucks!
At a Federation Campaign event I made friends with Karen Paz, who is a connector par excellence! Karen steered me to other incredible women, like McKenzie Wren, President of Congregation Bet Haverim, who, like me, does interesting work in group facilitation. I read something McKenzie wrote in the Atlanta Jewish Times and met her for coffee. Through McKenzie I learned about the year-long work of The Front Porch to engage Jews and their loved ones who don’t necessarily belong to synagogues and are looking for Jewish connection and meaning.
Serendipitously, an old family friend, Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, had just moved to Atlanta from New York. She accepted a position at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, as a Community Camp Ambassador. I didn’t know she would be leading the meditation I attended during a Federation fundraising day at MACoM. It was moving to pray with this beautiful woman who had moved from California fifteen years ago.
Working the Pride Parade, I discovered FREE MOM HUGS, a group of moms, friends, and allies who support the LGBTQ community in Georgia. From there it wasn’t a long leap to meet Rebecca Stapel-Wax who leads SOJOURN, Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity. It’s impressive and amazing that Atlanta has these resources.
At some point, my husband connected me with Jennie Rivlin, a Ph.D, a coach and serial entrepreneur. Jennie’s new venture, Women Leading Fearlessly, was right up my alley. We had dinner with Jennie and her husband Webb. I could see that their intellectual and Jewish lives were creative and diverse. Jennie told me about Limmud Atlanta + Southeast, which she now leads, where people of all ages and beliefs learn together. I’m thinking about going to their Labor Day weekend event.
In this wonderful period of Atlanta discovery, I’ve allowed myself to try on lots of hats, some Jewish, some not. I’ve lobbied for ACLU and Planned Parenthood and NARAL. I attended an amazing ADL workshop on being an Upstander. I’m signed up to volunteer for Purim and attending the upcoming Pairings Dinner sponsored by Federation. Everyone keeps telling me, “you have to meet Carol Cooper!” I look forward to coffee and conversation with her about Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta.
I don’t know if Atlanta is our last stop, and I still have two college-aged kids who don’t live here, but this city has certainly won my heart. In California, I didn’t make time to explore my complex feelings about Jewish identity. In India I had to actively seek out Jewish people. Here in Atlanta, the Jewish community enveloped me with kindness. It is a community that is secure, proud, and welcoming. Atlantans seem “called” to serve the wider community. How Jewish is that?!