Ahavath Achim Synagogue (AA) will celebrate Chanukah with a big bang again this year during its annual Sparks of Light festivities on Dec. 10.
For the fifth year in a row, the evening will feature a magnificent, colorful, and loud fireworks display in the sky above the front lawn at one of Atlanta’s most venerable synagogues. Wayne Neuwirth, a longtime congregant, and volunteer will light up the night with his pyrotechnical wizardry.
“Sparks of Light is a huge night for our congregation. At a time when it would be easy for Chanukah to be overshadowed by the negative events happening in the world, we have a fireworks display that will literally blow it out of the water for all who attend. I know that big memories are created each year during this incredible evening,” said Rabbi Lawrence Rosenthal, senior rabbi of AA Synagogue.
The event is well-attended by both congregants and their extended families, as well as other Jewish community members. Last year, close to 250 people attended the night’s festivities. The evening begins with a variety of Chanukah-themed crafts and activities for children, followed by performances from each of the Sunday school classes. There is also a menorah lighting and dinner for all attendees. And then it’s time for the bright lights and loud noises.
Neuwirth, who has been fascinated by fireworks all his life, says the show is his gift to a synagogue family he loves dearly — and judging from congregant sentiment, the community loves him right back. Neuwirth personally plans, funds, and launches all of the fireworks himself. “Congregants have offered to help sponsor the fireworks, but I tell them I want to do it all and wouldn’t have it any other way. AA is extra special to me and my family. I live to see the smiles on people’s faces, particularly the kids,” he says.
Neuwirth, a regular Shabbat and holiday attendee, grew up at AA with his parents, Barbara and Herb Neuwirth, and brother, Glenn. His wife, Sara Fran, and daughters, Lauren and Dana, are also active in the shul and known for their welcoming presence, volunteerism and willingness to jump in and help, even at a moment’s notice.
Whether leading shiva services for congregants who have lost a loved one or handing out candy to kids every Shabbat, Neuwirth is recognized by synagogue members not only for his devotion to Judaism and his benevolent spirit, but also for his colorful personality and unique interests. He rarely attends Saturday services without donning a colorful suit or sport jacket, along with his signature Mardi Gras beads, which he has accumulated over 25 years spent at the festivals in New Orleans. As far as his colorful clothes, Neuwirth mentions he often selects them based on a specific occasion, such as his strawberry sport jacket to commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness Month or the pumpkin orange suit for Halloween. In spring and summer, he sports white spats to complement his outfits.
“Wayne is his own person and most definitely a nonconformist,” says Gary Alembik, the current president of the congregation.” He brings joy and happiness to our services and events, and I have a lot of respect for the passion he brings to prayer,” he adds.
Though Neuwirth says nothing compares to his commitment to Judaism, he has three other passions –amusement parks, Halloween, and Mardi Gras. Some of his friends, in fact, call them his “obsessions.” Almost every Sunday, Neuwirth can be found at Six Flags Over Georgia, frequently accompanied by AA congregants and their children. He has helped several families at the shul map out their own visits to Disney World in order to maximize their time at the park.
At Six Flags, Neuwirth is known by staffers and his cadre of fans as “Mr. Six.” His six-year-old granddaughter, Charleigh, is his frequent companion these days, and his children were raised visiting amusement parks around the country during every vacation break. Neuwirth says his favorite park is Disney Paris, which he visited this past October with his family.
As for his other passions, Halloween and Mardi Gras, each holiday has a room in his East Cobb home dedicated to it. At Halloween, neighborhood children save his house for last, knowing the visit will be festive and fun, not to mention a little scary. Wife, Sara Fran, says of his interests, “Wayne enjoys collecting and buying all these decorative items around town and collects the Mardi Gras décor when he attends Mardi Gras each year. He has such fun installing his new purchases, and that keeps him happy. And what’s more, it keeps him busy with lots to do!”
And while Neuwirth lays tefillin and prays every day, studies Torah, keeps kosher and never misses a Shabbat or holiday service, he does not see his interest in Mardi Gras and Halloween as contrary to his religious observance. “Interestingly, the first King of Carnival at Mardi Gras in New Orleans was Lewis J. Solomon, a Jewish man who was a member of the Rex krewe. Both Halloween and Mardi Gras are about giving, bringing people together and making them happy. Experiencing joy is a central tenet in Judaism, and I love being able to create these moments for others,” says Neuwirth.
Neuwirth’s “krewe” at AA appreciates his contributions at the synagogue. Director of Education Annsley Klehr calls him “brilliant and creative, always coming up with great ideas for the synagogue that reflect his passionate interests.” According to Klehr, Neuwirth spends months planning what she calls “the spectacular, professionally staged fireworks show.”
Rabbi Rosenthal has also embraced the innovative, lively, and fun events at the shul as it continues to evolve to meet members’ interests. According to Rabbi Rosenthal, “We are glad the community can see something big coming out of AA. Our congregation continues to grow, and we have experienced a rebirth due in large part to offering this type of dynamic programming. People are coming back to their family’s roots at AA, along with many newcomers who want to be part of all that is happening here at the synagogue.”
To learn more and register for Sparks of Light, please visit www.aasynagogue.org/event/sparks-of-light-3/. Full security will be on-site throughout the event.