An ancient religion and a historic congregation focus on the future.
You’d never notice the Congregation Children of Israel (CCI) temple tucked away in a residential neighborhood in Athens were it not for the sign at the end of the driveway. The modest stone building was dedicated in 1968 after the historic 1884 synagogue downtown at Jackson St. and Hancock Ave. was razed to make way for a new federal building.
Now, following a significant renovation and expansion, which was completed in 2019, just before the Covid pandemic, the congregation has only been able to use the new space occasionally and with safeguards during the last year and a half. And unfortunately, the recent High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) had to be observed both online and in person with masks and proof of vaccination.
The renovation, though, made a difference that is “like night and day, literally,” says Joel B. Katz, current president of the temple. The mid-century structure had no windows in the sanctuary and thus no natural light. Now there’s a wall of windows and a door that opens onto a small garden area, a skylight, a larger, wheelchair-accessible bimah (a raised platform where services are led), a new sound system, flexible seating for 200 instead of the traditional pews, and a renovated social hall.
Most striking are the impressively tall, stained-glass sliding doors that protect scrolls of the Torah (the five books of Moses in the Old Testament, handwritten in Hebrew), which are in the ark (cabinet) behind the doors. In the upper right corner of the panels is a lighted, yellow glass design element that represents ner tamid, a term in Judaism that means eternal light. This light, in some form or another, is above the ark in every synagogue worldwide, and is perpetually lit.
“The light of Torah should always be in us,” explains Rabbi Eric Linder, 47, who says the Jewish people live by the concept of tikkun olam—the repair of the world. “Not only in good times, but also in bad, we should be the light, seek the light.”
There are three branches of Judaism, including Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—CCI is associated with the Union for Reform Judaism, the only such congregation in northeast Georgia. Reform congregations strive to bridge tradition and modernity.
“The renovation goes back to being Reform and constantly adapting what is meaningful and inspirational,” says Linder who was drawn to CCI nine years ago because of its intense community involvement and the synagogue’s respect in the community.
Relevance in a changing world
Staying relevant is the key for the many Boomers in the synagogue who want to connect the generations and thrive. They aren’t resting on the virtue of tradition for tradition’s sake, but are looking instead for ways to meet the challenging needs of the 21st century.
Helene Schwartz, 73, has been a congregation member for 50 years and was excited about the new renovations.
“We needed more flexible space, and we wanted more light.” Beyond that, attracting new, young families were essential considerations in the renovations.
“As the rabbi, making Judaism relevant is different for a kindergartner than a 90-year-old, and I take that seriously,” says Linder, who guides his synagogue into the future by continuing to bolster its community presence. He is a founding member of the Interfaith Clergy Partnership of Greater Athens (ICPGA), an organization that includes more than 60 faith leaders from religions as diverse as evangelical Protestant denominations and Islam.
Linder also records a weekly podcast called REALigion. Partnering with his friend and fellow clergyman, Rev. Joel Tolbert, formerly of Oconee Presbyterian Church, Linder discusses tough questions about faith and spirituality. The two collaborate on REALigion where, “A Rabbi and a Reverend walk into a podcast… and talk REAL about religion.”
“Judaism is a 4,000-year-old religion, and we owe it to our ancestors to carry on, but ultimately that can’t be the only reason,” says Linder. “The beauty of our religion is taking the thousands-year-old text and finding that there is still relevance in the words.”
To that end, congregants are dedicated to inclusion and elevating the quality of life for all of Athens regardless of faith, political affiliation, or social standing. Outreach programs include participation and support for Family Promise of Athens and Our Daily Bread. Temple programs, such as Holy Cohen—a night of Leonard Cohen music—and support of the Athens Jewish Film Festival, are part of their ongoing interaction with the community.
Judaism is based on values such as kindness, loving one another and social justice, says Schwartz, and she believes CCI has done a good job of bringing those traditions into the contemporary world by both supporting families in the home and through education at the synagogue.
“We have a phrase, l’dor v’dor, which is Hebrew for ‘from generation to generation.’ That’s our tradition to carry forward, not just our religious practices, but our values such as education.”
In addition to a religious school and Hebrew School, CCI engages its children through the Athens PJ Library Program, which delivers Jewish books monthly by mail to participating children from birth to age 12. The national program, funded by a foundation, is coordinated locally by Marilyn Gootman, who also organizes gatherings and connects with those served by the PJ Library.
“Children and young families are our future, and it’s important to connect and welcome them into our community,” says Marilyn Gootman, program coordinator. “The Jewish people are known as the ‘People of the Book.’ We place a high value on reading and education.”
Member Lizzie Zucker Saltz, 59, credits Gootman with drawing her family into the congregation in 2001 when her first child was born. Saltz is president of the CCI’s Sisterhood, an organization of women in the congregation, which recently published a cookbook representing multiple generations of the congregation’s women.
Food is an important part of Jewish tradition and heritage. “This cookbook,” says Zucker Saltz, “has a recipe from every Sisterhood president since the ’40s. By including stories that chronicle the community, we are honoring the generations of our families.” (See cookbook review.)
Passing the Torch
Emily Honigberg, 84, has been a member of CCI since 1964 and has decades of fond memories of the synagogue, where her children all grew up participating in religious activities. She felt an aura of comfort and holiness in the old sanctuary. “Now,” she says, “the new sanctuary gives me feelings of energy and renewal.”
Florence Schwartz, 97, the congregation’s oldest member, supports the synagogue’s progress, saying, “It’s my temple—young people have to keep it up and keep it growing.”
It’s every generation’s responsibility to build for the future,” says temple president Katz. “We like younger people to be groomed for leadership positions and that’s one of our goals. Training young leaders is critical for ongoing success so we don’t age out.”
Fortunately for CCI, there is a new generation ready to accept this challenge. Zachary Friedman, 38, has been a member for four years and is new to the temple board. Looking into the future, he says, “I think the temple must continue to connect with the Athens community in a way that aligns with the principles of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (acts of loving kindness). I think this also aligns with the social justice component of Reform Judaism.”
Like many other religious groups, CCI has faced challenges in the 21st century. Hostilities toward Jews and anti-Semitism have plagued congregations across the country, and the local temple has had to acknowledge these challenges with heightened security and surveillance cameras.
“These are unstable times,” says temple president Katz. “All congregations are concerned, not just Jewish ones. My hope is for the temple to connect with mutual aid efforts that support marginalized populations, the homeless, and individuals with substance use and mental health issues. We must look deep into our shared communities and support each other.”
When Katz looks to the ner tamid gracing the ark of the rejuvenated sanctuary, he says he “sees the light of hope.”
“We feel a responsibility to pass the torch, if you will,” says Katz. “Many synagogues are relics of a bygone era. We don’t want that to happen. CCI is going in the opposite direction, and the renovation proves that. We want to stay vibrant.”