It was 1977 when Rabbi Alvin Sugarman ran into Mark Jacobson at the old Jewish Community Center on Peachtree Street. The Temple, down the street from the JCC, needed a new administrator and Sugarman had the thought that the young Jacobson would be a good choice.
It was a risky decision for the senior rabbi of the congregation to make. Jacobson, who had grown up at The Temple, and was confirmed there less than a dozen years before, had little business experience and had never worked for a synagogue. He was a recent graduate of Tufts University and the only full-time job he’d ever had was as a branch manager at the National Bank of Georgia.
But Sugarman, who was appointed senior rabbi in 1974, only three years before, thought the friendly, soft spoken young man had what it took to run what was then, as well as now, one of the most important Reform temples in America.
Much to his credit, Sugarman’s choice in 1977 turned out to be an extraordinary success. For the next 45 years, until now, Jacobson has run the business affairs of what has become the largest synagogue in the Southeast and one of most important Reform congregations in America with a steady, professional hand. His long record of serving a single congregation for so many years is said to be unequaled in America.
For his retirement party, hundreds of his friends and family, along with the temple’s professional staff and congregants, crowded into the historic temple’s sanctuary to pay tribute to him. Among them was Rabbi Sugarman, who had developed a lasting bond as they worked together for 27 years. The 85-year-old rabbi described the relation they had as “like family.”
“It couldn’t be any closer if we had been born brothers and we do call each other brother. His life is grounded in integrity and character and wisdom. All the things that any synagogue, any rabbi and his staff would want in an executive director is found in Mark a thousand-fold. And I know there is no more a respected person in his field than Mark Jacobson.”
Over his long career, Jacobson has served in national leadership positions with the Reform movement’s pension fund and with the National Association of Temple Administrators, who last year named their national service award in his honor. At the Sunday evening program, temple administrators from Atlanta, and from 19 communities in the United States and Canada, attended.
Baltimore Rabbi Donald Berlin, who served as an interim spiritual leader at The Temple from 2007 to 2008, took as his inspiration from the Torah in speaking about Jacobson.
“Know before whom you stand,” the rabbi said, “some people see that as Torah, I see it as an expression of G-d as reflected in the faces of human beings. Mark treated each person as if there was divinity within them and I thought that was golden.”
The Temple Senior Rabbi Peter Berg who, ultimately, was chosen to lead the congregation in 2010, likened the many contributions that Jacobson has made over the years to another great leader.
“Very few of us in this world will ever be like Moses,” Rabbi Berg said. “But, once in a while, once or twice in a generation, there’s a Mark Jacobson, an individual who, like Moses, devotes his life and work to our ideals while knowing that we will end up passing the work to a better society, to the next generation.”
Over his long career, Jacobson has worked with 26 temple presidents, 23 rabbis of various levels of seniority, and seven educational directors. Under his watch, The Temple went through a $20 million rebuilding and expansion program, initiated an ambitious capital endowment campaign that doubled the amount of money that was expected to be raised, built a pre-school that is now at capacity, and earned accolades from the Reform movement and Newsweek Magazine that described The Temple as one of the 25 most dynamic congregations in America.
But in his retirement speech, the Temple executive director took most of his time singling out every one on his large staff for the contribution they have made to the success of the congregation.
“On May 25th, 1966, I stood right here during my confirmation ceremony, and my part in that started out with the words, ‘Judaism is like a torch that illuminates all the corners of the world.’ Today, I say, thank you, my Temple family, for brightening my life and my world.”