On the Shabbat before the Georgia General Assembly’s 2023 session convened, more than two dozen state legislators stood together at Congregation B’nai Torah and received a blessing from Rabbi Joshua Heller.
“Bless them with the strength of character to always put ethics before ego, purpose before personality, and public before party,” B’nai Torah’s senior rabbi said as part of his blessing [full text below].
The presence of the bipartisan group — mostly Democrats but also several Republicans — at the Jan. 6 service stemmed from an idea that newly-elected Democratic Rep. Esther Panitch brought to Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee.
Panitch initially considered inviting small groups of lawmakers to her home for Shabbat dinners. Wilker, a fellow member of B’nai Torah, suggested engaging the synagogue. Scheduling — on the eve of the Jan. 9 start of the 40-day legislative session — worked out. Republican state Rep. Todd Jones served as a co-host.
Panitch represents District 51 in Fulton County and Jones was re-elected in November to a fifth term from District 25 in Forsyth County. Jones, whose mother is Jewish, has a close relationship with Congregation Beth Israel, part of Chabad of Forsyth County.
All members of the 180-seat state House and the 56-seat Senate, many of whom represent districts with minimal Jewish populations, were invited. Jews make up an estimated 1.2 percent of the Georgia population while Jones and Panitch comprise 0.85 percent of the General Assembly.
“We recognize that most of the elected officials have never been to a synagogue. Most non-Jews have never been into a synagogue,” Wilker told the AJT. “We wanted to create a bipartisan experience at a synagogue, so that they would have a better understanding of who we are as the Jewish community. It’s about creating ways for our elected officials to have touchpoints in the Jewish community.”
Some 200 people attended a dinner afterward. “We all know that eating together, breaking bread together, is a key point in strengthening relationships,” Wilker said.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul and other city officials, as well as members of the judiciary and aides to area members of Congress, also were present.
As part of the service, Panitch was joined by her mother, Linda Goldstein, in leading the singing of “Lecha Dodi” (Let us go, my beloved) to welcome the Shabbat. Israeli Consul General Anat Sultan-Dadon delivered, in Hebrew, the prayer for the welfare of Israel from the Conservative movement’s prayer book.
At the dinner afterward, Sultan-Dadon said it was “wonderful to see the warm relations that exist and the warm relations that are being formed” between the elected officials and the Jewish community.
“The lack of a Jewish voice under the Gold Dome was a large part of why I ran for office and also why I wanted to host this dinner. I’m honored to be the bridge between the Jewish community and the Georgia legislature. I want to bring these two groups together and help facilitate conversations about how we can make a better Georgia. Friday night was the first step in making that happen,” Panitch told the AJT.
Wilker said that he hopes to see the “first annual” event expanded next year to synagogues throughout the state, giving legislators the opportunity to engage with the Jewish communities close to their districts.
“We are better as a state and improve our local communities by providing opportunities that allow for fellowship,” Jones told the AJT, in thanking the American Jewish Committee and B’nai Torah. “I share the AJC’s vision where we will collectively host simultaneous Shabbat dinners across Georgia prior to the 2024 legislative session.”
Republican Rep. Scott Hilton, from District 48 in Fulton County, said in a Twitter post that he was “honored to join” with the Jewish community. “The service was mostly in Hebrew — loved it — learned a lot!” Hilton wrote.
Also on Twitter, Democratic Rep. Shea Roberts, from District 52 in Fulton County, said: “The Jewish community in Georgia and around the country is living in fear because of the increase in antisemitism. It’s our responsibility to take action to protect them because an attack on our Jewish friends is an attack on American values.”
The full text of Heller’s blessing of the legislators:
Let us pray. God of all. We ask your blessings for these men and women who this week take on the awesome responsibility of service to the people of our state.
Bless these, our lawmakers, with the wisdom and understanding to enact laws and carry out policies which will benefit all who live and work here.
Bless them with the wisdom to ensure the safety and security, the health and wholeness of all who dwell here.
Bless them with the vision to help our state preserve the beautiful gifts of nature that you have given us.
Bless them with the discernment to alleviate poverty and seek the prosperity of all.
Bless them with the insight to be guided by their own personal faith and conscience to conduct all of their affairs with integrity.
Bless them with the strength of character to always put ethics before ego, purpose before personality, and public before party.
Bless them as they leave homes and work untended to offer service to our’s and may their sacrifices be rewarded. God, watch over their families, their businesses, and their communities. Bless partners and children, co-workers and clients, and all who rely upon them until they return.
May they be inspired by the deeds and examples of the best leaders of our past, and by the tenets of their own faith and principles, to follow the words of the prophet Micah: ‘Act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’
And let us all say, Amen.
- Dave Schechter
- Georgia General Assembly
- Congregation B'nai Torah
- Rabbi Joshua Heller
- Esther Panitch
- Dov Wilker
- American Jewish Committee
- Todd Jones
- Congregation Beth Israel
- Chabad of Forsyth County
- Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul
- Lecha Dodi
- Israeli Consul General Anat Sultan-Dadon
- Scott Hilton
- Shea Roberts