I became observant in Atlanta. At the time, it was a kiruv community. The word means “bringing close”. You could look at it as proselytization, but I think that misunderstands what was going on. There was a kollel whose main purpose, at least as it was explained to me, was not to “learn for the sake of Heaven” to bring merit to the community, as many kollels are, but rather to contact Jews who’d be interested in learning more about Judaism, or practicing more. If you’re familiar with Chabad, it was basically Chabad without the chassidus. They even went (and still go by) the acronym “ASK” – Atlanta Scholar’s Kollel.
Even this does not really explain how I viewed the Orthodox community of Atlanta at the time. The community itself, not just the kollel or the synagogue, was dedicated to creating a microcosm of what we wanted the Jewish world to be. It should, first off, welcome everyone who wanted to learn – even non-Jews, although they were definitely not the target audience. It should foster growth, but only according to the way the person wanted to grow. It should be as non-judgmental as possible. It should make Judaism not be an all-or-nothing proposition.
Therefore, we had our quirks, which I was very proud of. For four years I served as “Hospitality Guy”, a position I inherited from a line of predecessors. Every Shabbat evening and morning, the rabbi would point me out during the announcements and say, “If anyone needs a place for Shabbat dinner (or lunch), please see Bobby Weinmann.” If you want to learn about Torah and Judaism and how it’s lived, the best place is at the Shabbat table.
There was a beginner’s minyan, an abbreviated service where the prayer order was explained and all questions were entertained – from the service itself to “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I met my wife there, because the rabbi would always say, “Say ‘Good Shabbos’ to the person next to you… and the person across the mechitzah (the low and thin curtain separating the men from the women).” My wife happened to take him literally ;).
The most quintessential “Atlanta” incident I ever witnessed was a woman jogging in a tichel (head scarf married women wear) and shorts. To me, this was the ideal. She could fulfill the mitzvah of a head covering, but she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or disagreed with wearing a skirt to jog. Why should she miss out on the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah she could fulfill just because there were other mitzvot she to which she did not adhere? Why should I worry about my child being exposed to her? She’s doing a mitzvah and that should be the focus and I WANTED my daughter to know it.
The message was always an Orthodox one. “These are the mitzvot and you should do them”, but if you only do some, that’s a big deal and it shouldn’t be taken for granted. It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, many had trouble wrapping their heads around it, or never agreed to it, but I felt we had a mission. This was the Judaism I accepted when I became ba’al teshuvah (one who becomes observant later in life). When I became exposed to the rest of the Orthodox world through going to a ba’al teshuvah yeshiva, I was shocked and not a little scared. Until we made aliyah – a mitzvah in its own right – I really couldn’t imagine living in any other Jewish community.
I recently visited the US, including Atlanta. The world I described is largely gone. No one announced the Hospitality Guy. There are no, or almost no, newbies to Judaism anymore. Atlanta has an influx of FFB (those born and raised Orthodox) in other, more “black hat” communities (yankees, sigh). They didn’t sign up for our social experiment.
On this visit, I believe I saw the last nail in the coffin: For years, Atlanta was known worldwide for the fact that its parking lot was open on Shabbat. Those who’d never experienced a Shabbat could come without having to figure out how to get there – a large obstacle if you already feel like a heathen. There were also a lot of old-timers who would probably never stop driving on Shabbat, but were a living history of the place. Sadly that’s no longer true. I’m told it was for security reasons, and I believe them. On the other hand, we didn’t close the parking lot after 9/11. The website still has the slogan, “The Orthodox synagogue for all Jews,” but I’ve heard for years rumblings that we should really change it.
Perhaps the Jewish saying at a death has more than one meaning: “Baruch Dayan HaEmet”, “Blessed is the True Judge.” I honestly hope this idea and ideal gets reborn somewhere. Perhaps it has and I’m just unaware. I think the Jewish people needs it.