Retirees Flock to North Georgia Mountains
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Retirees Flock to North Georgia Mountains

In Blue Ridge, residents can’t get over how much the growing Jewish community in the mountains has meant to them.

For the first time ever, Bankrate, the financial services website, described Georgia as the best place to retire in the nation.
For the first time ever, Bankrate, the financial services website, described Georgia as the best place to retire in the nation.

The Jewish Congregation of Blue Ridge, as the synagogue in the small North Georgia town 90 miles north of Atlanta calls itself, celebrated the last night of Chanukah this year in a big way. The congregation, which numbers about 50 active members, lit up a 9-foot menorah in the center of town on the final night of the holiday for a crowd that included the town’s non-Jewish mayor.

It was yet another sign that the Jews of North Georgia have made a home for themselves in a part of the South that had once condoned racism, anti-Semitism and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Today, the JCBR, as it calls itself, worships in a facility provided by the Faith Presbyterian Church in Blue Ridge and has formed a close partnership with their non-Jewish neighbors. They even provide storage for the congregation’s handsome ark, which was built by a local craftsman. (The Torah scroll was acquired from a synagogue in Clearwater, Fla. that was shutting its doors.)

High Holy Days Torah readings are a highlight of services in Blue Ridge.

Howard Winkler, the congregation’s secretary, commutes from his home in Cobb County to Blue Ridge, where he has spent weekends and vacations for the last 20 years. The 70-year-old retired Georgia Power executive describes the congregation as “marvelous” and a model of interfaith co-operation.

“We’re a part of the interfaith community. We volunteer at interfaith events, the Presbyterian congregation has provided us a place to worship over these past several years. They were guests at our Passover seder. The city was just there lickety-split to help us install our large menorah. They’ll store it for us until next year, when we display it during the eight days of the holiday in the main downtown park in the middle of town.”

Earlier this year, the JCBR partnered with their hosts to accept a $15,000 grant from the Columbia Theological Seminary’s Lilly Endowment in Decatur. The money was used during the summer, in a joint social service project that provided hundreds of meals for needy seniors in Fannin County — where Blue Ridge is located — as well as neighboring counties in the area.

The program, which also provides training on dealing with the effects of long-term poverty, culminated with both congregations building a large sukkah during the holiday of Sukkot in September.

The Jewish Congregation of Blue Ridge holds monthly Shabbat services.

In recent years, the North Georgia mountains have also become a prime destination for retirees. Lured by spacious mountain vistas, the slow pace of life, a relatively affordable cost of living, and a generous package of tax breaks for seniors, Jews have joined the parade to snap up prime retirement homes in unprecedented numbers. Earlier this year, for the first time ever, Bankrate, the financial services website, described Georgia as the best place to retire in the nation. In Blue Ridge, which some call the High Country of Georgia, builders are having trouble keeping up with demand.

Mike Holloway, of Coldwell Banker High Country Realty, says that the demand for retirement homes, coupled with the trend by younger workers of virtual offices far from the crowded streets of big cities, has created a seller’s market in the last year and a half.

“It’s probably one of the biggest seller’s markets in 20 years,” he said. “Prices are really, really up. Many of the homes, particularly those with long-range mountain views, cabin-style, the things that people are looking for, go for list or above list with multiple offers and usually sell within just a few days of listing. So it’s been a good time for sellers, particularly those who have second homes, where they don’t have to reinvest that money in another home.”

Closer to Atlanta, Pulte Homes, one of the nation’s largest home builders, has made some serious investments in North Georgia. Over the last 15 years, through its Del Webb subsidiary, the company has developed sizable 55-and-over communities in North Georgia.

Near Chateau Elan Winery and Resort in Hall County, it has built 1150 homes on 545 acres and has a 35,000-square-foot activities center for retirees.

Another development of resort-style retirement homes is located in Cresswind at Lake Lanier, a 934-unit residential complex with a 254-acre nature preserve.

All this growth has helped to make Forsyth County, which borders Lake Lanier, one of the fastest growing counties in the state. According to government statistics, it’s now among the top 20 fastest growing counties in the nation.

A small synagogue in Gainesville has just hired Rabbi Steven Lebow, who is retired from Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta. And Chabad of Georgia has purchased a 10-acre site in the Forsyth community of Cumming, which will be the first full-service synagogue and community center in North Georgia.

Marty Pomeranz blows the shofar at the Blue Ridge Congregation.

In Blue Ridge, Winkler can’t get over how much the growing Jewish community in the mountains has meant to him.

“At this stage of my life, to help create a Jewish community here has been the greatest blessing of my life. I only wish my father were around to see it because he would have kvelled.”

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