Atlanta Jewish Life Festival Unites Diverse Community
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Atlanta Jewish Life Festival Unites Diverse Community

The inaugural Atlanta Jewish Life Festival, organized by the AJT, welcomed more than 4,000 Jewish Atlantans on Jan. 13 to the Georgia Aquarium.

The band Friction, made up of eighth-graders from The Davis Academy, was a standout act.
The band Friction, made up of eighth-graders from The Davis Academy, was a standout act.

The Atlanta Jewish community is big and widespread, so it’s not often that the whole community can come together under one roof. But the inaugural Atlanta Jewish Life Festival, organized by the AJT, welcomed more than 4,000 Jewish Atlantans on Jan. 13 to the Georgia Aquarium.

“It’s great to see families, children, seniors all in one place,” AJT Owner and Publisher Michael Morris said. “It was wonderful to watch Orthodox and Reform community members come together, rekindle friendships and create new ones.”

Sponsored by the AJT, the Henna Den offered hamsa tattoos.

Beth Gluck, Southeast region director of Jewish National Fund, echoed Morris’ sentiment.

“It was terrific to see the Atlanta Jewish community come together on Sunday at the Georgia Aquarium, the myriad communal and professional organizations on hand represented the incredible diversity of our city,” she said.

Walking into the aquarium, visitors were greeted with friendly faces from the AJT staff and volunteers, a green-screen photo area and plenty of entertainment, food and merchant options.

The first sensations wafting through the air were the amazing smells coming from the Nosh Pit. And while a day of exploring a festival can really leave someone craving tasty treats, no one left the AJLF hungry, as 11 food vendors worked all day to keep stomachs full and smiles wide.

Visitors could sample Jewish foods from mini bagels to South African-inspired curry chicken.

Among those caterers were six certified kosher options: Cinnaholic, Revolution Gelato, A Kosher Touch, Pita Palace, For All Occasions and More, and Avenue K.

“I felt the event was wonderful,” said Jodie Sturgeon, owner of For All Occasions and More. “I know it was the first time doing it and it exceeded even what we thought was going to be there. We did great, people loved our food and we loved every moment of it.”

Even in the world of kosher catering, the mouth-watering options were very diverse. Sturgeon explained that her biggest seller was her boneless beef short rib, while Sydney Kohn of A Kosher Touch said that its hit recipe was a South African-inspired curry chicken, displayed in an unusual way.

What would a festival be without cotton candy?

“The food was presented in our gigantic paella pan, filling the room with a unique and delicious aroma. A Kosher Touch was so pleased to be asked to participate in this wonderful event, and we cannot wait until next year!” Kohn said.

A Kosher Touch served the AJLF crowds.

From the Nosh Pit, guests could make their way to the main event, the Kibbutz in the Oceans Ballroom. Here the Jewish community showed just how diverse it really is, filling the room with tables from more than 60 community partners. Ranging from synagogues and schools to charities and camps, the room was brimming with people schmoozing and making new connections.

“It was one more thing that shows we are one of the best Jewish communities in the world,” said Eric Robbins, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. “The AJT and their commitment to bringing our Jewish community together around events like the festival is one of the key ingredients to this incredible community!”

Partners from all over Jewish Atlanta reveled in the opportunity to connect firsthand with community members.

From jewelry to art, there was plenty to view at the inaugural Atlanta Jewish Life Festival sponsored by the AJT, whose owner and publisher Michael Morris is pictured with an artisan.

“Jewish National Fund is always proud to take part in such a worthwhile cause, which builds solidarity and connection to our Jewish roots, values and commitment to Israel,” Gluck said.

Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz of Chabad of North Fulton added that the festival was a treat for him, as someone who lives outside the perimeter, to see so many Jewish faces all in one place.

Attendees also had the opportunity to wrap tefillin and spin a prize wheel.

“It was really wonderful to be there. There was such a great energy in the room. The mere fact of being together with so many of Jewish Atlanta was unbelievable, especially for those of us who live a little further north,” he said.

Also making the trip downtown was Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta. “I thought it was a great event, and amazing to see an incredible number of people from all parts of Jewish Atlanta all in one place. There was a real effort to make sure everything was connected,” he said.

“I liked having it at the Aquarium. It got kids automatically engaged and excited to be there, and the food was really good — that never hurts either.”

The Ballroom offered a perfect view of whales, sharks and more.

Sharing more in common than a love of food and frolicking, there were educational pop-up exhibits in the Oceans Ballroom from the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Both exhibits chronicled Jewish history, but through very different lenses.

The Wiesenthal Center’s exhibit, “The Birth of Israel: 18 Months that Changed Jewish Destiny,” told the story of the 1 ½ years leading up to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

With photos, documents and firsthand stories, the panels depict “the Jewish people’s long journey home, the struggle for a Jewish state, the leading figures who advocated for statehood and the villains who tried to block it,” according to a Wiesenthal Center press release.

Jewish organizations from the Jewish Educational Loan Fund to ORT and Jewish National Fund educate the public about their missions.

“Eighteen Artifacts: A Story of Jewish Atlanta,” the Breman Museum’s exhibit, recounted how Jews have played a role in the success of the city for more than 175 years, featuring such events as the 1965 bombing of The Temple, the first Home Depot opening, and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s support of civil rights.

Accompanying community partners and exhibits in the ballroom, a number of groups showed off their musical side, with performers taking to the stage to play a variety of musical genres.

First up on the StarLab stage in the Oceans Ballroom was The Epstein Middle School Shiriyah Ensemble. One of the bigger surprises of the day was “Friction,” a rock band made up of Davis Academy eighth-graders Jackson Crim, Sammy Effron, Zach Friedman and Carson Wolff. The band formed when the four were in sixth grade, and they’ve been playing together ever since. Sunday’s performance featured several classics, among them, “The House of the Rising Sun,” “Rosanna,” and “Superstitious.”

Friction rocks out to some classic melodies like ‘Hard to Handle’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’

While you might not expect to hear such nostalgic melodies from a group of eighth-graders, Effron’s reason for the song choices was incredibly straightforward.

“I think that’s what people like to hear,” he said.

Wolff agreed with his band member’s take and added that he was pleased with the reaction to their performance.

“I think the audience liked it, and that’s all that really matters,” Wolff said.

The Epstein Middle School Shiriyah Ensemble was among the performers on the StarLab Stage.

And while Friction was a hit with many of the adults in the room, another performer, Rabbi Jake, enraptured many of the children with his unique style of Jewish children’s music.

On another stage in the aquarium atrium, performing to a Jewish and general audience, were incredible acts with melodious voices and jazzy beats: Mojo Dojo, As of Yet, Song of Atlanta Show Chorus, and the Bet Haverim Choir.

“Many thanks to … staff, volunteers and attendees who helped to make our show a success and lots of fun,” said Scott Glazer of Mojo Dojo.

Attendees could also visit The Shuk, where they could browse stunning wares from artists, from pottery and jewelry to paintings and sculptures. There were also caricature artists and a henna den offering creative entertainment for the entire family.

Judaica art on display in the AJLF Shuk.

“I heard glowing and positive comments about the festival all day!” said caricature artist Preston Lindsay. “Perfect venue, perfect everything. And, it was so well organized, amazing. I was delighted to play a small part!”

Ruby the Clown also left his mark on the community, walking his rubber ducky around, and performing magic for attendees.

Ruby the Clown shared his antics throughout the Ballroom.

The festival accomplished its goal of uniting the Jewish community in a celebration of Atlanta’s vibrant and varied Jewish life.

“It was a real blessing to bring together such disparate parts of our Jewish community in celebration of Jewish life, especially against the backdrop of such a fascinating place,” said Ahavath Achim Synagogue Rabbi Neil Sandler.

Morris agreed. “We succeeded in connecting the Jewish community to Jewish life, organizations, food and music. It was a home run,” he said.

When asked about the future of the event, Morris left little room for doubt.

“This was an awesome beginning to an annual festival,” he said. “It will definitely be happening again in the future.”

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