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Documentary highlights journey of Ahavath Achim Synagogue’s 125 years in Atlanta

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Almost a year ago, Bobby Ezor started interviewing a handful of congregants to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Ahavath Achim, a conservative Jewish synagogue at the corner of Peachtree Battle and Northside Drive.

“I thought, ‘What if I go around with a camcorder and get some interviews and thoughts?’ I thought it was going to be a small little thing,” said Ezor, a prominent local attorney. “And one thing led to another.”

Documentary highlights journey of Ahavath Achim Synagogue’s 125 years in Atlanta photo
HANDOUT/Ezor

Ezor quickly realized he was gathering string for what would become a full-length documentary called “Reunion, Renewal, Ruach.”

Ezor enlisted his friend, magazine writer Vince Coppola, and secured Tovah Feldshuh, a Tony Award nominee (for her portrayal of Golda Meir in “Golda’s Balcony”), to narrate.

Meanwhile, Bobby and his wife, Elisa, did the heavy lifting. Elisa Ezor combed through decades-old photographs of 3,000 congregants to track them down. Elisa contacted 2,300 of the 2,600 living congregants (no small task especially considering she was starting out with only the maiden names of some of the women). Meanwhile, Bobby arranged and oversaw videotaped interviews with congregants, which include two members who are well into their 90s.

Documentary highlights journey of Ahavath Achim Synagogue’s 125 years in Atlanta photo

The documentary features interviews with several congregants and synagogue leaders, as well as rarely seen documentary footage. That includes footage from President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ceremony in January 1977, which closes with the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by the late cantor Isaac Goodfriend, who was a Holocaust survivor and also a member of Ahavath Achim.

The hourlong documentary will be shown Sunday and is open to the public to mark this milestone of the historic Buckhead synagogue. Doors open at 5 p.m. The program, which includes Mayor Kasim Reed presenting Ahavath Achim with the City of Atlanta Phoenix Award and the showing of the documentary, begins at 6:30 p.m.

In doing his research, Ezor learned several Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, have strong ties to members of his synagogue.

Documentary highlights journey of Ahavath Achim Synagogue’s 125 years in Atlanta photo

In 1887, Ahavath Achim was first organized in one room by a handful of Eastern European immigrants living around Gilmer Street. The first synagogue was built in 1900 in a building on Gilmer Street with a circular stained-glass window and two onion domes. By 1920, the synagogue grew to several hundred members, and Ahavath Achim moved in 1921 to a building on Washington Street (which now happens to be second base in Turner Field).

The documentary is filled with stories deeply rooted in Atlanta’s history. Ebenezer Baptist Church (where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was baptized and served as pastor) was founded one year earlier in 1886.

“There is a 97-year-old man who tells me about his little grocery store and about how he offered a job to a young beautiful woman and she said, ‘Thank you, but I have a job.’ Turns out that was Coretta Scott King,” Ezor said.

That same man Ezor is referring to — Lewis Silverboard — says in the documentary, “We were poor immigrants in a new country, and we built our synagogue with our own hands and in building it, we laid the foundation of the American dream so many of us have been blessed to have achieved.”

In 1958, Ahavath Achim, often called “the AA synagogue,” took root in its current location in Buckhead and enjoyed decades of growth. By the mid-1970s, the synagogue had 3,000 families and was one of the largest conservative Jewish synagogues in the country.

But suburban sprawl in the late 1980s took its toll, and as many people started moving out to the suburbs, some synagogues followed. And while Ahavath Achim remained intown, the place of worship saw its flock shrink year after year as families moved to east Cobb, Roswell and Sandy Springs.

By 2008, the congregation was less than half of what it was in the 1970s. But then, beginning in 2009, the decline leveled off, and Ahavath is seeing numbers climb. As more and more people move back into the city, intown neighborhoods — and the AA synagogue — are seeing a resurgence. The synagogue now has about 1,200 families.

Ezor, originally from New Jersey, has been a member of AA synagogue for the past 34 years.

He said while he’s “not overly observant,” he’s happy to see the synagogue revitalize itself as we move into the 21st century.

“I like the fact that it has stayed,” Ezor said. “I am a loyalist and I cry when my favorite Chinese restaurant closes. That makes me upset. … I like that AA synagogue has a history and they are great doing alternative stuff that young people like. They recently had a service and played the prayers to the tune of the Beatles. Next week, it will be done to U2. I like to see it keep traditions but also be open-minded to serve what people want.”

Event preview

“Reunion, Renewal, Ruach”

6:30 p.m. Sunday. (Doors open at 5 p.m.) $18. Ahavath Achim Synagogue, 600 Peachtree Battle Ave. N.W., Atlanta. 404-355-5222, www.aasynagogue.org.

Note: Tickets available at the door based on availability.

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