For the first time since the pandemic began almost three years ago, Congregation Or VeShalom’s annual Chanukah bazaar was back in its usual place, filling the synagogue’s large social hall and spilling over into the entrance and hallways of the domed structure on North Druid Hills Road. Since the mid-1970s, the sisterhood of the Sephardic synagogue has made the event, which was held this year on Dec. 4, an important part of keeping the historic congregation alive and prospering.
The president of the sisterhood, Angie Weiland, grew up in the synagogue where her family has been members for generations. Her father, Victor Maslia, was president of the congregation and a leader in the community for many years. Her mother, Lenore, was, like herself, the president of the sisterhood. For Weiland, the annual event is not only an important fundraiser, but a way of keeping the historic synagogue community, which goes back over a hundred years, together.
“We have the same people we might only see, you know, five times during the year. But on the day of the bazaar, they know what their job is for that day. A lot of people have had the same jobs, the same job for 20 or 25 years or more. And everyone shows up, and everyone in the congregation helps with it. It’s amazing.”
A main feature of the bazaar is the food, which is all prepared in the synagogue’s kitchen. Every Tuesday, members of the sisterhood, and an occasional male member of the congregation, get together to bake. They often make bourekas, the Sephardic savory pies, similar to Spanish empanadas, that were a feature of everyday life in the Eastern Mediterranean, where many of the members’ families originated.
The well-known food writer Joan Nathan four years ago profiled the so-called “boureka Tuesdays” of Congregation Or VeShalom for the New York Times. A film about the group was screened at a recent Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
Thousands of the pastries made from a dough of white lily flour and mazola corn oil are baked each year and frozen. They’re snapped up by visitors to the bazaar, along with the cookies, baklava, quajada de spinaca, a kugel-like casserole, and other foods that are all made with such loving care in the synagogue kitchen.
A spiral bound book, “The Sephardic Cooks,” which was compiled more than 50 years ago of traditional recipes handed down by the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of today’s members, is a perennial best seller at the synagogue.
Although in years past, it was considered a given that marriages in the synagogue community were almost solely between Sephardic families, today, many couples, like the Weilands, are between those who are Sephardic and Ashkenazic.
The synagogue’s rabbi, Josh Hearshen, is the first spiritual leader who is Ashkenazic, but he claims to be a quick study. Since coming to the synagogue two years ago, he has managed to keep many of the Sephardic religious and cultural traditions while welcoming new members from a variety of backgrounds. In the past year, which has been a difficult one for many synagogues still recovering from the health crisis, the synagogue has enjoyed impressive growth. About 40 new families have joined a community that now numbers around 350 members.
While Rabbi Hearshen admits that COVID has made synagogue life something of a roller coaster ride, he sees the success of this year’s bazaar as a sign of good times ahead.
Less than a mile away from the synagogue building, he can see the billion-dollar campus of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta rising. The immense Arthur M. Blank Children’s Hospital, with its 1.5 million square feet of pediatric facilities, is beginning to take shape.
Rabbi Hearshen has started a capital campaign that will help fund a new chapel building and new staff. There are plans to hire a Sephardic cantor to complement the congregation’s Sephardic religious services. But while the congregation is beginning to change in some ways, it is Hearshen’s hope that what he sees as the great strength of the community, remains.
“We excel at being a synagogue that still remains like a family. We really know one another. When we walk in here, like for this bazaar, we’re excited and even ecstatic to be together with one another. And yet we are very welcoming to outsiders, who are newcomers like myself. It’s an honor for me to lead a synagogue that truly cares.”
Still the sisterhood president, Angie Weiland, has her worries, as the community changes and the cohesiveness of the congregation is challenged by new social and economic patterns.
“It’s very difficult. We rely on our core members, who have been members forever and ever. But we have changed. We’ve had to. We all adapt. It is very important for us to keep together. Otherwise, we won’t have any Sephardic community at all.”