Atlanta: A Community Moving Together into the 21st Century

Federation CEO Eric Robbins planting a tree in Israel

By Eric M. Robbins

Allow this Pittsburgh boy to kvell for just a moment about his adopted city, Atlanta, GA. Atlanta just made the short list for the new Amazon headquarters. We’re a hot location in Georgia’s booming tv and movie industry. The Superbowl is coming here in 2019.

Yes, Atlanta is having a moment. It’s also having a Jewish moment.

With 120,000 Jews (and still growing), 40+ synagogues, 7 Jewish day schools, Jewish camps and a full spectrum of legacy and innovative organizations, metro Atlanta has become an exceptionally good Jewish place to live. We really do have it all. Jewish Museum, check. Jewish Film Festival, check. Jewish Music Festival, check. AIPAC, AJC, ADL, JNF, ORT, Friends of the IDF, they’re here too.

Young adult Jews also have good reasons to choose or stay in Atlanta. We’ve established three vibrant Moishe Houses to engage the critical post-college generation – a gap community that all-too-often falls between the cracks of our legacy institutions. We have outreach programs like OneTable, Limmud Atlanta, Interfaith Family, a pluralistic mikvah, SOJOURN which supports LGBTQ Jews, and an annual Kosher Barbecue, And we’re a Jewish innovation hub that has piloted ground-breaking programs like Jewish Kids Groups, In The City Camp, and a new multi-million initiative to engage our teens.

As CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, it is my singular mission to take Atlanta from good to great, to become a thriving 21st Century Jewish community. My first-year priority was to start discussions that would unlock our incredible untapped potential, and help us envision a new framework to carry our community forward. It was important to challenge old assumptions and create a process that was broad and inclusive, with intentional outreach to every corner of Jewish life.

We call our effort “The Front Porch,” evoking a deeply held Southern tradition of reflection, of hospitality and of connecting with your neighbors and your broader community. The Front Porch has been bringing us into each other’s homes and community institutions. It also brought us on an extraordinary learning journey to Israel this month. With the support of a visionary donor, we’ve returned from an ambitious working trip to Israel that drew together 70 Jewish professionals representing the broad panoply of Jewish life here.

The Front Porch has sent teams out on immersive Learning Journeys that have included discussions with other Federations and deep dives into our own Jewish ecosystem. These journeys have also taken us to unexpected places outside the Jewish community. We’ve learned from evangelical churches, our local Community Foundation, a local waste removal company, the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, Woodruff Arts Center, Sephora Cosmetics, and our local public radio station, to mention only a few. What we’ve discerned about change and innovation is already yielding important insights and clues about how to become the most vibrant and innovative Jewish community that we can be.

From day one it was apparent that we have so much to learn from Israelis. They’ve found fresh solutions to disabilities, aging and everyday social problems that challenge our people. We were also reminded how outdated and destructive our narrative of Jewish crisis and obligation can be. Our youth must know and come to understand the challenges we have had as a people, but they need to be turned on to the vibrancy of Jewish life and how meaningful it can be for them! If we don’t offer a new vision of Israel and the power of Jewish values to make the world, better, they won’t choose to join us.

Israel in 2018 is confident, prosperous, and an inspiring center of innovation. When we visited our partner region in Yokneam and the Meggido regional council, it was not to see the philanthropic projects we have funded there to help renew that community. We’re proud of those efforts, but this visit was to build one-on-one relationships and bridges, so we can better understand each other and help each other be more connected. As peers and as friends we can build a far more durable and effective partnership.

This trip was a living experience in pluralism, and everywhere we traveled, Israelis commented on it. Our delegation of 70 included several orthodox Rabbis, liberal, gay and women rabbis, and everything in between. We studied together at a secular yeshiva and an Orthodox yeshiva. We had the courage and strength to recover from conversations and exchanges that some felt were unbalanced. And we remained true to our American and Southern traditions by modeling to Israelis how you can have a tachlis conversation without everyone shouting at each other.

I was personally blown away by the incredible women leaders we met in Israel – women addressing poverty in Lod, leading yeshivas in Tel Aviv, advocating for pluralism in the Knesset and at the Kotel. We met women making significant changes in the LGBTQ, Haredi, and aging communities. They were building bridges to Arabs, standing up for the rights of African refugees and spearheading urban renewal. As the father of a daughter, it made me optimistic for the opportunities that she too could have.

As we return to Atlanta and bring our insights back to The Front Porch, I am especially proud of the important agreements we reached, to leverage the relationships we made into new partnerships. As co-creators of the new Jewish Atlanta we want to become, we have committed to never speaking unkindly of each other or assuming malintent. We have agreed that we will continue to devote time and energy to nurturing a relationship with Israel that ensures this miraculous nation remains compelling and relevant to the next generation.

How perfect that our experience coincided with Tu B’shevat. Never has that holiday felt more relevant. Together, we planted fruit trees in the Negev, knowing that this was fertile soil and that our saplings were the perfect metaphor for how we could strengthen our community for generations.

I cannot shake the words of Avraham Infeld, a sage of the Jewish people who, like the Zayde of a large and complex family, reminded us on the very first day of the trip that Jews are a people and not a religion. Moreover, we are people animated by collective memory, and today we are a people with something new – a people with power. Infeld also articulated what I believe to be the mission of the Jewish people: to be a blessing to all the people of the earth.

I am confident that if we could get our community to sing together, debate together, break bread together, and pray together, as they did on in Israel, we have a great shot at rebuilding our Jewish ecosystem into something new, with opportunities for every Jew, and points of connection that have never existed before. And when we do, I know that the funding, the inspiration and the energy will flow like milk and honey.

Eric M. Robbins is President & CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.