Unlike many Jewish communities in small Georgia towns whose connections to Atlanta are mostly through former residents, Rome’s Rodeph Sholom Congregation boasts numerous rabbinic associations with Atlanta – as well as many former Romans now living in the Atlanta area.
Rome, city of seven hills and three rivers founded in 1833, became home to Rodeph Sholom Congregation in 1875. The same year, J.J. Cohen donated land on Mount Aventine, one of Rome’s seven hills, for the congregation’s Jewish cemetery. Rabbi David Esserman was the congregation’s first rabbi and the great-great-grandfather of Shelly Peller, the wife of the current congregational president. He served Rodeph Sholom from 1898 until his death in 1917. In 1937, a congregant who lived in Adairsville, Abe Abramson, died and left money to the congregation, launching a building fund that resulted in its structure on East First Street.
On March 27, 1938, when the new congregational building was dedicated, Atlanta Rabbis Harry Epstein and David Marx officiated. Rabbi Epstein officiated again at the 20th anniversary of the dedication and was on hand in 1975 at the congregation’s 100-year celebration.
But Rabbi Epstein was not the last Atlanta rabbi to grace Rodeph Sholom’s bimah. Although the synagogue had a full-time rabbi until 1955, student rabbis from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, served the congregation for the next 40 years. Then Rabbi Scott Saulson from Atlanta served the Rome synagogue for 10 years.
Since then, Rabbi Judith Beiner, community chaplain of Jewish Family & Career Services in Dunwoody, has taken the part-time mantle as religious leader at Rodeph Sholom.
She takes turns leading services with Rabbi Steve Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta. Rome-native and Atlanta attorney Deborah Heyman Harris became friends with Lebow after attending summer camp with him.
“I’ve been going to Rome off and on for two or three years,” Lebow says. “I love the people there. They are so knowledgeable. My favorite thing is to teach Torah study. They are hungry to learn and I’m hungry to teach.” When he’s home at TKE, he leads services with a cantor and has a choir director. When in Rome, “I’m a one-man band,” he says.
Rodeph Sholom is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism and partnered with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss. Peller compares the congregation to “The Little Engine that Could.”
“Our motto is to focus on what we have, not on what we don’t have,” Peller says. “We focus on quality, not quantity. We have a beautiful sanctuary and a core group of active members who are well educated.” A physical therapist, Peller is married to a doctor. She grew up wanting to move to a big city, but her New York City-born husband wanted to live in Rome.
Peller’s older sister, Jackie Greenstein, who lives in Peachtree Corners, says that when they were growing up, “I was the one who was going to stay in Rome and Shelly was the one who was going to leave.” Now Atlanta is growing too big for Greenstein, calling herself a “small-town girl.” Like many Atlantans who grew up in small Georgia towns, Greenstein says her Jewish identity was deeply instilled in her by her parents.
One of her favorite memories was building the sukkah at Rodeph Sholom. “The whole congregation was there. I remember how awesome the fresh fruit smelled,” Greenstein says. When she was very young, she recalls a Rome deli that sold kosher meat. “I remember going with my grandfather. He always gave me a big kosher pickle. He blew the shofar on holidays and when he left town, the honor passed to my father.”
In fact, the leadership of the congregation, which averaged 25 to 40 families for a long time and now has settled at about 15, seems to get passed like a baton from one family to another. Peller’s cousin, Phyllis Levine, was born in Rome, as was her mother. Her grandparents met and married there. “At one time, I think we were related to at least half the town,” she says, laughing. Now a resident of Buckhead, Levine notes her father’s furniture store, Rome Furniture Co.
According to Peller, whose family were also merchants, “all the Jewish merchants are gone now.” One of those merchants was the father of Lyons J. Heyman. Born in Atlanta, Heyman says his father and a friend had bought out a furniture manufacturing company in Atlanta and had moved it to Rome in 1937 when Heyman was about 8 years old. Eventually, both Heyman and his father were presidents of the Southern Manufacturers Association.
Heyman, now 90, sold his house in Rome last year and is now living in Birmingham. None of his three children live in Rome. His daughter is Heyman Harris and son Lyons J. Heyman Jr., who lives in Cartersville, is CEO and founder of 7 Hills Transport. Another son lives in Denver.
According to Heyman, anti-Semitism was never a problem in Rome. “There weren’t too many Jewish people so there wasn’t much to be angry about,” he laughs. A former president of Rodeph Sholom – “as most people have been” – Heyman says the current Rome Jewish community is “hanging in there. They need people more than they need money.”
The board of directors of the congregation has already voted to donate its records to the William Bremen Jewish Heritage Museum and archives in Atlanta, but has only had preliminary talks with the Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project about its future plans. Peller says the “challenge is that we always want to ensure the continuity of the congregation. We look at it as a mitzvah.”
But according to Lebow, “They’re a historic congregation. They’ll be around forever!”
This ongoing series about Jewish life in small towns is sponsored by the Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project. Visit www.jclproject.org to learn more about the initiative to help such communities as they navigate the present and prepare for the future.