Congregation Shearith Israel Builds New Leadership Team
Its mission is to connect people to meaningful living through Judaism.
Next year, Congregation Shearith Israel will celebrate its 120th anniversary of existence as a congregation. Today, its leadership is nearly finished building its team in preparation.
In March, it added a new executive director. Last August, the in-town congregation hired an engagement rabbi. And it still needs to hire a new education director as its longtime director is leaving that position.
The team members appear to be on the same page, with each and every one purposely quoting the multi-generational congregation’s mission to connect “people to meaningful living through Judaism.” And each and every word in that mission statement is underlined with actions taken and goals on the agenda.
When Rabbi Ari Kaiman joined Shearith Israel in 2016, the congregation numbered 315 family units. In the following two years, the congregation grew 25 percent to 420 families, where it has remained for the last few years. Of course, Shearith Israel – like all other synagogues – had to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic which kept people apart for about two years. But Shearith Israel initiated its Hineni campaign, based on the Hebrew word for “here I am,” at High Holidays in 2019 – just months before the pandemic changed life for everyone.
“It started with a survey,” explained Kaiman, but one that differed from most surveys. Shearith Israel’s survey was not anonymous. “We encouraged people to tell their stories. We wanted to understand the individuals and their passions. But it’s hard to change people’s patterns. Although it was successful, it was mostly so with those deeply engaged already. We were able to move a few.” A majority of the responses were received in 2020-21.
In addition to learning more about the congregants, leadership wanted to know what was important about the congregation for each of the respondents. Was it services or programming during the week, and what kind of programming? The idea then was to connect those with similar interests so relationships could be built. “Relationships require time,” said Kaiman, an Atlanta native.
On top of a few good financial years, Shearith Israel was able to obtain a matching grant opportunity, said Blair Rothstein, congregation president as of March. “It was easier than I expected,” said Rothstein. “A couple of key families responded.”
The leadership decided to hire an engagement professional to take the congregation to the next step in the Hineni campaign.
The parameters of the search included non-rabbis. In fact, when the search was opened to rabbinic candidates, it caught the eye of Rabbi David B. Helfand, who was seeking his first job after completing his rabbinic studies. He and his wife, Rebekah Johnston, had made a short list of cities that appealed to them for relocation. Atlanta was on his list. What struck him about the congregation immediately was how warm and engaging it was.
Helfand started work Aug. 1, 2022. His two goals were: one, “to build community partnerships” with synagogues and other Jewish organizations. “I see myself as a connector.” His second goal revolved around the Hineni campaign, building a network of relationships. Meeting congregants all over the city has also helped Helfand get to know the immense metro area.
According to Rothstein, the congregation had created a strategic plan five years ago. “We have made enormous progress, but my vision is to build on that. We want to build up an in-town Jewish center.”
An Atlanta native who had moved away but returned in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Rothstein noted that the Morningside area, where Shearith Israel is located, was very Jewish in the 1950s and 1960s. “We are the beneficiary of a geographic shift back into the city,” he said, pointing out the potential advantages for his congregation.
The most recent addition to Shearith Israel’s team is Genea Moore, who joined as executive director on March 20. A longtime Jewish professional, whose last job was executive director at Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, N.Y., Moore had not had Atlanta on her mind as she sought a new job. It was actually “a mistake. I thought the job was in Manhattan. After speaking with them, I realized it was in Atlanta, but it didn’t take much convincing because I kind of felt at home in Shearith Israel.” It helped that she already had good friends in the city who could help facilitate her move.
She acknowledges that the “South is different, but my transition has been amazing.” Moore found Shearith Israel willing to learn “something new from someone new.” She describes the congregation as having a different feeling from her last post, which was also associated with Conservative Judaism. “They are a little bit happier and open and not so uniform. At Midway, people were expected to be quiet during services. Here they are more relaxed and there are different things gong on, like Torah study, and different age groups meeting.”
Moore’s major goal is to “take Shearith from great to greater, and make life easier, work smarter, not harder.”
Kaiman said that Moore brings a “wonderful energy to the congregation. She brings process and organization. We are very much lay-driven as a congregation.”
His job, he said, is to “let the lay people shine.”
Helfand describes his [relatively] new employment as an “amazing place to learn how to be a rabbi. They are challenging and encouraging in the most meaningful way.”
Working together, the Shearith Israel team is preparing for its 120th year.