A Shul And A Mission
published in Mishpacha Magazine January 27, 2010
When Rabbi Emanuel Feldman first arrived in Atlanta over half a century ago to lead Congregation Beth Jacob, he entered a city devoid of Yiddishkeit. Orthodox synagogues there were tearing down their mechitzos and their members were trying to assimilate as quickly as possible. There is no way Rabbi Feldman could have imagined that the city would grow from a handful of shomer Shabbos families then to over 500 today.
Today the orbit of Congregation Beth Jacob continues to expand, with dozens of people becoming Orthodox every year. It is one of the most successful kiruv communities in America and serves as a model for other kehillos.
Beth Jacob is located in the Toco Hills neighborhood of northeast Atlanta. It’s the main frum community of Atlanta, though several smaller Orthodox communities exist throughout the metropolitan area. Here Rabbi Emanuel Feldman planted values of strict adherence to halachah, Torah study, constant growth in Yiddishkeit, and openness to all. The shul’s motto, “the Orthodox Synagogue for all Jews,” is manifest the minute one steps inside. One can be davening in the shul with a blackhatted Jew in a black hat in front of him, a Breslover to his left, and a man in a kippah srugah to his right.
A Rocky Beginning
Rabbi Emanuel and Rebbetzin Estelle Feldman arrived in Atlanta in 1952. He was twenty-five years old, just out of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. (Today his younger brother, Rav Aharon Feldman, is the rosh yeshivah there.) Congregation Beth Jacob was a tiny Orthodox synagogue with forty families, and was housed in an old, converted wooden apartment building.
“It was a perfect shidduch. No one wanted to go there, and I thought no one would take me as a pulpit rabbi because I was too young. It was a perfect match,” Rabbi Emanuel Feldman recounts, describing his initial position.
To the Jews of Atlanta, the Feldmans were an anomaly. Every other Orthodox synagogue in the city was moving away from Orthodoxy, and the general feeling was that Torah Judaism had no future in Atlanta. Even in Congregation Beth Jacob, there were only two shomer Shabbos families, and they were elderly couples in their eighties. The remaining members had little knowledge or understanding of frumkeit.
Bill Gris, who was raised Orthodox in New York City, moved to the community in 1959. He recalls that Beth Jacob members were then just beginning to take their first tenuous steps towards full Orthodoxy, but still had a lot to learn.
“Shabbos was almost unknown in this community, even within Beth Jacob,” Gris notes. “In 1962 when the shul was built, I would walk each Shabbos on LaVista Road to the synagogue and people driving to shul would stop to offer me rides!”
When the Feldmans arrived, Atlanta Jews thought that Orthodox Judaism was archaic and outdated. The Feldmans’ first priority was to dispel those sentiments.
“We tried getting the people to feel that Orthodox Judaism is something relevant. We tried to make them feel like they’re the aristocracy of Jewish life, that they’re the head and not the tail. In Atlanta in those days it was hard to teach that,” Rabbi Feldman recalls.
People had the perception that Orthodox rabbis were all old, aloof, and cold. To their surprise, the Feldmans were a young, trendy, and approachable couple. When they arrived they began to reverse the stereotypes, and started to attract Jews back to Torah observance.
“There was the feeling in the community that things like mitzvahs, learning, and mikveh were for old people. Here we were, a young couple: I played tennis, my wife dressed well. It impressed the people,” Rabbi Feldman explains. “I was one of best tennis players in the community. It drove them crazy. My wife was a former fashion designer, yet kept her hair covered. It drove them batty.”
The Case of the Missing Mechitzah
Over time, Beth Jacob members were drawn to the Feldmans. Yet even as their respect grew, they remained resistant to change. The congregants envied the larger, more affluent, and fancier Reform and Conservative temples in Atlanta, and many aspired to have a similar synagogue.
In 1955 the congregation purchased a church building, which was to be its home for several years until it moved into its present building. The church building was completely renovated for synagogue use in time for Rosh HaShanah. As part of the renovations, Rabbi Feldman had a mechitzah constructed and installed. He knew the board of directors would not agree to it, so he merely informed the president of his plans. The president, not completely realizing what the mechitzah entailed, gave his tacit approval.
The membership got its first sight of the mechitzah on the first night of Selichos. While on most Shabbosim the shul barely had a minyan, the Yamim Noraim services and the first night of Selichos were very well attended. The wives of most of the board members were appalled at the mechitzah. They immediately walked out fuming.
The next afternoon Rabbi Feldman was in the shul and noticed that the mechitzah was missing. He called the chairman of the renovations committee, who told him that the fire marshal had come to check the building that day. He said that the marshal had declared the mechitzah a fire hazard and ordered it removed. Rabbi Feldman soon realized that the chairman was bluffing and that the board members had removed the mechitzah.
Rabbi Feldman met with the president to discuss the matter. At the end of the meeting, he informed the president that unless the mechitzah was returned by Rosh HaShanah, he would immediately resign from his position. The congregation would be left without a rabbi for the holidays.
Rabbi Feldman knew that the move was risky. He was still a young and relatively inexperienced rabbi on the verge of losing his first job. But he knew that he needed to put his foot down on the side of halachah, as well as to defend his role as the religious authority of the community.
A few days before Rosh HaShanah, the mechitzah still had not been returned. Rabbi Feldman was in a local pharmacy and ran into a congregant whom he knew to have a loose tongue. Rabbi Feldman informed him of what had occurred and of his threat to quit. Following the conversation, the news traveled through the community like wildfire. Congregation officers met with Rabbi Feldman several times to discuss the mechitzah. They tried to convince him that the mechitzah wasn’t necessary, and that it would stand in the way of the synagogue’s growth. Rabbi Feldman was respectful, but remained firm in his promise to leave if the mechitzah was not returned.
On the morning before Rosh HaShanah, the mechitzah reappeared in the shul.
Rabbi Feldman never publicly acknowledged the return of the mechitzah, but in his Rosh HaShanah drashah he
spoke about the kedushah that comes from separation, and explained that shuls today are replicas of the Beis HaMikdash, where the genders sat separately. It was an important moment for the shul and Rabbi Feldman. The community had taken a gigantic step forward towards accepting its identity at a kehillah centered on Torah observance. Rabbi Feldman also cemented his authority as the halachic decider of the congregation.
“From that point on, all halachic questions went to the rabbi. They looked to the rabbi. From that point on there never a question of his rabbinic authority,” Gris explains.
One Jew at a Time
In the shul and throughout the community, Rabbi Feldman taught all sorts of classes: the basics of Judaism, how to read Hebrew, introductory Chumash, and more. The purpose was not just to provide knowledge, but to repeatedly show people the relevancy and beauty of Torah. With humor, love, warmth, and openness, the Feldmans began to see more and more fruits of their labor over time.
“It was very gradual. People were growing, step by step. It’s based on not letting people feel that they’re being assaulted or attacked or hit over the head. It’s about teaching them with love and not looking down one’s nose at someone, no matter what their level of observance,” Rabbi Feldman says.
The Feldmans instilled into their community this feeling of acceptance and warmth. Community members, regardless of whether they joined in the 1950s or just within the last few years, say the kehillah still maintains this atmosphere of welcoming all people in a nonjudgmental way. These values, which originated in the Feldman house, have helped newcomers feel accepted and have allowed all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, to feel welcome.
Mira Bergen is now a frum woman living in the community. In 1986, years before she became observant, she met Rabbi Feldman when he helped her negotiate a get. She acknowledges that at the time she held many false preconceptions of frum people, but that Rabbi Feldman shattered them with his warmth, sweet personality, and welcoming manner.
“He called to speak to me once and got my secretary. She asked him what company he was with, and he told her ‘G-d,’ ” Bergen recalls. “I saw the joy, humor, and loveliness of dealing with someone who was close to G-d. I never knew that. To me rabbis were always off in their own aura, never talking to you, just around you. They never made eye contact, never gave answers. Here was a rabbi who was relating to life and reality.”
Mira eventually found her way to Orthodoxy through the warmth of the frum community. Several years after she first met Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, she began coming regularly to Beth Jacob on Shabbos.
“Little by little I started coming here. People started asking me to come for lunch,” Bergen recalls. “I was quick to tell people I drive on Shabbos, I eat shrimp, and they didn’t bat an eyelash. One of things I love — nobody was trying to change me, they were just being real. “I didn’t want to be Sabbath-observant, kosher, or observant; I just wanted to be around these people who I saw, how they were leading their lives, how they were with their children. I just wanted to be around them. It was so amazing.”
The synagogue’s motto, “an Orthodox Synagogue for all Jews,” is more than just rhetoric. It’s the tune that the synagogue and its members sing on a daily basis to this day. Many doors in the community feature the welcoming “Shalom Y’all!” sign, a tangible reminder of the fusion of Orthodox and Southern hospitality. Newcomers are overwhelmed by invitations for Shabbos meals from local families. The shul has an active hospitality committee. There’s even a Shabbos coordinator in shul each week who helps connect visitors to host families after davening.
“It’s a synagogue that has always been open to everybody,” Gris describes. “It starts with the rabbi and is reflected
on down through the membership. Many people moved here without family, and because of that there was always a certain warmth and closeness in the synagogue.”
On a personal note, I was one of those people inspired by the kindness of the shul and its leadership. I had grown up Conservative in New Jersey and attended Emory University in Atlanta. When I first moved to Atlanta, I did not know there were any Jews in the city, and I certainly did not expect to find a large, vibrant frum community two miles from campus. Through the help of the community, the Atlanta Scholars Kollel kiruv organization, and a local Chabad couple, I had become frum by the end of my four years in college. The warmth and love that I saw at Beth Jacob played a large part in my initial inclination towards frumkeit.
I first met Rabbi Feldman on Erev Yom Kippur in 1997, just hours before Kol Nidrei. We only spoke for a few minutes, but I could sense something very special in him. I looked into his eyes and saw a sparkle in them. I felt the incredible love and care he had for me simply because I was another Jew. That same love brought so many Jews in Atlanta back to Yiddishkeit.
Building A Community
As the Feldmans introduced Torah observance to the city, they made sure to create the institutions needed to support it. When Beth Jacob constructed its synagogue building, a mikveh was included, even though there wasn’t much demand. The Feldmans founded the first Jewish day school in Atlanta, and Rebbetzin Feldman was its principal. Though at first there was opposition to the school, through their characteristic love and warmth they were able to garner enough support to launch it.
Over time Rabbi Feldman attracted even more supporters. Most became Orthodox, but even those who did not still viewed him as the leader of Torah-true Judaism in the city.
“He was sincere, a great man of integrity. The nonobservant Jewish community recognized that, and he became a great source of influence in the community,” Gris says. “The [Atlanta Jewish] Federation always looked to him as ‘the Rabbi.’ He stood for something. He stood for classical Judaism and classical Jewish values.”
Rabbi Feldman chronicled the humor and challenges of tenure in Atlanta in his book Tales Out of Shul. There he writes the story of one of the shul’s early members. She could read Hebrew but did not know what the words meant, and so in the days before the ArtScroll siddur, she wasn’t exactly sure which parts of the tefillos to say when she came to shul each Shabbos morning. So each week she would read the entire Shemoneh Esrei with every insert.
Every few years, when Rosh Chodesh coincided with Shabbos Chanukah, and the Shemoneh Esrei did in fact include every addition, she got it perfect. (Just last year I spent Shabbos Chanukah in Beth Jacob, and people were still talking about her and her unique davening.)
Rabbi Feldman wrote several other books, including The Shul Without a Clock, which features essays on rabbinic and synagogue life. It took its name from Beth Jacob, which intentionally lacks a clock in its sanctuary. Its absence is designed to help congregants focus on their tefillos, and not on how many minutes are left until the end of services.
I was in the shul one Shabbos afternoon to hear a visiting speaker. Towards the end of his presentation he realized that he was running out of a time, and scanned the room to look for a clock. Not being able to find one, he asked someone for the time. The entire congregation called out, “It’s the shul without a clock!”
Passing the Torch
After forty years at the helm of the community, in 1991 Rabbi Emanuel and Estelle Feldman decided to make aliyah. It was a dream they had shared for years. They had inspired more than seventy Beth Jacob families to make aliyah, and now that the shul had grown and was on a stable foundation, Rabbi Feldman decided it was time to move on. But who could replace him?