In 1999, Atlanta’s Marcus Jewish Community Center left its old building downtown and built a lavish expansion on its 50-acre campus in the suburbs, equipped with indoor and outdoor pools, a professional theater, a summer camp and horse stables. Just a few years later, the new campus is packed every night of the week, and a second suburban campus is bustling, too. But executive director Michael Wise now says he wishes he had the downtown building back, and maybe a new campus, as well.
“If money were not an issue — and money is an issue — we would have locations in four places,” Wise said.
Wise and other Jewish leaders are scrambling to cope with the population explosion in this sprawling southern boomtown. With an estimated 4,300 new Jews a year moving into the city, Atlanta has become one of the fastest-growing Jewish cities in the country. That growth is simultaneously infusing Jewish life in Atlanta with new energy and putting a strain on the city’s institutions, as synagogues and organizations race to accommodate the newcomers and keep them from slipping through the cracks.
A century ago, Atlanta was a relative Jewish backwater, with a population of about 2,000 Jews. For much of its history, Atlanta was an uneasy place to be a Jew, as epitomized by the infamous trial and lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 and the 1958 bombing of Atlanta’s main Reform congregation, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (commonly known as “The Temple”), in apparent retaliation for its rabbi’s support for the civil rights movement. Jews from the rest of the country largely kept their distance.
Even by 1976, the Jewish population was still only 21,000. But as Atlanta has subsequently expanded in the decades since then, Jews have poured into town with ever-increasing speed, and the population has grown and sprawled out. According to a 2006 study conducted by Jacob Ukeles and Ron Miller for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the Jewish population was 119,800 in 2006 — an increase of 56% over 10 years — and by all accounts, new residents are still coming. Atlanta is now the 11th largest Jewish community in the United States.
Atlanta as a whole is growing faster than any metropolitan area in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s fueled by an abundance of well-paying jobs, a low cost of living and warm weather. The growth of the Jewish population has mirrored that of Atlanta at large, as Jews have flooded in from around the country, changing the face of the community. Only 19% of Jewish Atlantans were born in Georgia, compared with 30% who were born just in the New York-New Jersey area; this means that Atlanta Jewry is losing its Southern accent.
That growth has spawned a building boom — more than $100 million was raised for new synagogue and community buildings over the past 10 years, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta — as Jewish institutions race to keep up with the growth. Where longtime residents remember a city with five synagogues, Atlanta now has 35 congregations and six outposts of the Chabad-Lubavitch ultra-Orthodox sect, which is famous for reaching out to unaffiliated Jews. A Jewish high school has just opened a new building and expects to expand within a few years.
The boom has been funded by Atlanta’s own crop of homegrown philanthropists, which includes Home Depot founders Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank (now most famous as the owner of the Atlanta Falcons). Perhaps appropriately, Blank grew up in Queens, Marcus in Newark, N.J.
Meanwhile, those unable to keep up with the building boom have found ways to make do. Smaller synagogues that are too new or too small to afford their own building have turned for space to one of Atlanta’s most abundant resources: churches.
Rabbi Analia Bortz of the Conservative Congregation Or Hadash, which for some time met at a church, recalls that her daughter complained to her after visiting another congregation: “Mommy, it’s not fair — their church is prettier than our church.”
Or Hadash has since outgrown its church and is now renting space in the new, austere concrete buildings of a Jewish high school, the Weber School. It’s an interim arrangement: In a few years, the school and the synagogue expect to outgrow each other, and Or Hadash will likely move yet again.
But Atlanta is also famous for its sprawl and its traffic, and as the new Jewish population has fanned out across the city, it has become harder to keep the community connected.
“Until you’re on the ground, it’s difficult to comprehend the scope of the city,” said Wise, who arrived last year from Akron, Ohio.
Unlike many older cities, such as Baltimore and Cleveland, Atlanta has no “Jewish” part of town. Jews have spread out to the north, the east and the west of the city, and now, younger Jews are moving back into the downtown area, too. That has made it harder for traditional Jewish organizations to reach their target audiences. Instead, the Jewish agencies have opened up satellite branches in the outer reaches of the suburbs, sometimes sharing space with synagogues. Wise is now looking to rent new space in the city, and in the far-flung northern suburbs, to expand the JCC’s early childhood programs.
Yet, Atlanta’s largest Jewish community — the unaffiliated — dwarfs all the building and expansion. Of Atlanta’s Jews, only 42% are members of a synagogue or Jewish organization, one of the lowest rates in the country (though well above the national low of 21%, in Las Vegas), which means that some 70,000 Jews have no official connection to the Jewish communities.
This is the flip side of Atlanta’s growth. Atlanta’s Jews are generally transient and young, and both of these groups are generally less likely to affiliate. Many young, professional Jews have moved toward the central part of Atlanta, and Jewish groups have scrambled to find ways to connect to them, often in less conventional venues. The JCC now sponsors events in trendy bars and restaurants. Some young Jews have taken to organizing themselves. A group of 20- and 30-somethings has organized a monthly prayer group that meets in an athletic clubhouse, and for those just looking to have a drink, there is a social group that meets once a month.
With growth in Atlanta projected to continue unabated, Jewish leaders are still grappling with the challenges they face, great and small.
“There is so much vibrancy, there are so many things happening — how to coordinate it?” federation president Marty Kogon said. “The needs facing the community are dramatic in a variety of fashions.”
“Still don’t have good bagels.”