A Less Orthodox Toco Hills Shul

A Less Orthodox Toco Hills Shul

By Fran Memberg

There’s a new kid on the block of synagogues and Jewish day schools stretching along LaVista Road from Clairmont Road to Briarcliff Road in northeastern DeKalb County.

Congregation Bet Haverim President Charlie Chasen (center front) and members Andy Segal (left), Jamie Collins, Kim Goldsmith, Jan Levie and Max Levie-Sprick (behind Chasen) spruce up the entry to the congregation’s new home in Toco Hills.

Congregation Bet Haverim purchased the building formerly owned by Young Israel of Toco Hills, which in September moved down LaVista to a new congregational home.

The sale was finalized in October. Bet Haverim expects to occupy the building by the end of spring when renovations are completed.

“It’s one of the biggest Shechecheyanu moments of our synagogue,” said Charlie Chasen, the Bet Haverim president, referring to the Jewish prayer of thanks marking holidays and special occasions. “We’re excited to be makers of our own destiny and feel connected to our own place.”

Bet Haverim, Hebrew for “house of friends,” was founded in 1987 by gay men and lesbians “as a Jewish home where they could bring their whole selves to fully engage Judaism and Jewish life,” according to the synagogue’s website (congregationbethaverim.org). It has grown to 350 member households of diverse backgrounds and a Sunday school with 150 students.

For nine years it has rented space for worship services, programs, events and adult education at the Central Congregational United Church of Christ on Clairmont Road. The Sunday school is housed at the Atlanta Friends Meeting House in Decatur.

“It feels warm and welcoming to be part of a Jewish community,” said Chasen, harking back to Bet Haverim’s formative years, when the congregation was “told it would never be able to sit at the Jewish community table.”

Bet Haveim staff and clergy echoed Chasen’s sentiments about the way Young Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation, has treated the move of a progressive, Reconstructionist congregation into the LaVista corridor of traditional Judaism.

“Rabbi Starr and I have been laying the foundation with ongoing conversations,” Bet Haverim Rabbi Joshua Lesser said about his Young Israel counterpart, Adam Starr. “He has been warm and welcoming to our board.”

Rabbi Lesser said he spoke to his congregants about “modeling pluralism and respect for differences, respectful engagement” with their Orthodox neighbors. “This is an opportunity for us to not let ourselves feel less authentic [and to] not dismiss or demean the Orthodox community.”

The move to LaVista Road has personal meaning for Rabbi Lesser, who has served since 1999 as Bet Haverim’s first full-time rabbi. A native Atlantan, he is an alumnus of the Hebrew Academy and attended Yeshiva Atlanta High School before graduating from Paideia School.

“It gives me an opportunity to reconnect with former classmates who live in Toco Hills,” he said. “I have personal respect and deep pride for Jewish tradition.”

Rabbi Lesser said his dealings with Young Israel and connections with others in the Toco Hills Jewish community have taken him on a rabbinical path he hadn’t expected to follow.

“I’ve always been a bridge builder,” he said, referring to his coalitions with interfaith, African-American and straight groups. Now he’s adding “intrafaith” bridge-building to his résumé.

Amy Robertson, the Bet Haverim executive director, made the connection that led to the purchase of Young Israel’s former building at 2074 LaVista Road. At a meeting of metro Atlanta synagogue executive directors last May, Robertson chatted with Young Israel’s executive director, Eliana Leader, about the space Young Israel was vacating.

“That opened up the conversation, and the presidents [of both congregations] got together,” Robertson said.

“Young Israel has been nothing but warm and welcoming to us,” she added. “Diversity is a wonderful thing for all of us.”

Besides the financial benefit to his synagogue, Rabbi Starr said he was pleased to find a Jewish buyer for the property.

“Our membership is overwhelmingly supportive, and we want to welcome our new neighbors,” Rabbi Starr said. “We’re looking forward to welcoming them.”

Purchasing a building from another synagogue eliminated zoning hassles for Bet Haverim. Young Israel’s building was classified as a lawful noncompliant structure, allowing a residentially zoned property to function as a place of worship, as stipulated by the DeKalb County Department of Planning and Sustainability compliance code.

An attorney was consulted to ensure maintenance of that classification for Bet Haverim.

According to Robertson, funds were immediately available to buy Young Israel’s building, thanks to some members who, in the early 2000s, were proactive in raising money for an eventual purchase of property.

“People had such faith in this project even before we had a place,” Robertson said.

A small mortgage was obtained for renovations and will be paid for from the synagogue’s operating budget. County records show that the sale price was $518,000.

While Rabbi Lesser said he is excited about having a place “to create our unique sense of home in our own building,” he acknowledged that it “might be a stepping stone” to a larger structure.

Robertson said discussion is ongoing about whether to renovate the building to provide mostly communal space for services and events or to also create smaller areas for offices and gatherings such as study sessions and book club meetings. The Sunday school will continue to be held at the Friends Meeting House, and, if necessary, office space will still be rented at the Congregational Church location.

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