Shalom, y’all. That’s what the Jews of Atlanta will be saying to two charismatic New York-area rabbis who are giving up pulpits here for the Georgia boomtown.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a prolific author and activist in the Reform movement who has led pulpits on Long Island for 14 years, announced this week that he will become senior rabbi of The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest congregation, which was bombed by white supremacists in 1958.
Rabbi Hillel Norry of Shaare Zedek, a Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side that he was widely credited with reviving, left this summer for Atlanta’s Congregation Shearith Israel. Rabbi Norry, who is a member of the Conservative movement’s committee of Jewish law and standards, could not be reached by press time.
Their moves reflect a broader demographic shift of Jews to the South and West, referred to as the Sunbelt. According to the just-released 2002 National Jewish Population Survey, 74 percent of American-born Jewish adults hail from the Northeast and Midwest — but only 54 percent still live in those regions.
Almost half of American Jews continue to cluster in the Northeast, a number that has been strengthened by immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have largely settled in the New York area.
The Atlanta area, which has an estimated Jewish population of 100,000 — up from 77,300 in 1996 — has been one of the most dramatic Jewish growth stories of the decade. It, and several other Sun Belt communities, like Broward County in Florida, have seen not only a growth in Jewish population, but a growth in infrastructure as well, including new amenities — such as kosher restaurants and mikvehs — for observant Jews.
Atlanta, for example, has 36 synagogues today, compared to 21 in 1995, and since 1992 three new Jewish day schools have opened there. The Conservative movement recently opened a summer camp near Atlanta, which serves Jews from all over the South.
The Reform movement, which has over 900 synagogues — and more congregants than any other movement in the United States — has seen much of its recent growth in the West and South.
Since 1982, Reform synagogue membership rosters in the Pacific Northwest have increased by 72 percent, by 69 percent in the Pacific Central West and by 50 percent in the Southeast. Since 1997, eight Florida congregations and two Georgia ones have joined the Reform movement.
While other groups have less detailed statistics, most also report growth in the South.
The Broward/Palm Beach area in Florida is home to 20 Chabad synagogues, all built in the past 20 years, including a new 25,000-square-foot facility. Leaders with Chabad, which is known for its outreach to unaffiliated Jews, say they have seen greatest growth recently in Florida, Georgia, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
According to Rabbi Moshe Krupka, director of synagogue services at the Orthodox Union, mainstream Orthodoxy is also flourishing in the South, particularly in Boca Raton, Miami and Atlanta.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said his movement also has noticed a demographic shift towards the South, with a substantial number of existing congregations there growing and new ones starting.
At the same time, the movement is seeing “significant decline in the number of congregations and congregants” in remote parts of the Midwest, such as Nebraska and Iowa.
In response, the United Synagogue is shifting some of its staffing, adding new regional youth directors in the Southwest, for example.
Rabbi Salkin, 48, a Long Island native who is currently the spiritual leader of the 1,600-family Community Synagogue in Port Washington, L.I., is best known for his book, “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah.”
Rabbi Salkin said he is eager to experience a Jewish community that — while growing — is smaller and more tightly knit than the Jewish community of Long Island.
“I often find that on Long Island and in the Northeast we rely on ethnic nostalgia,” Rabbi Salkin said. “I like delicatessen food and Yiddish expressions as much as anyone, but these will not keep the next generation of Jews Jewish. The emerging work is going to happen in places that will try to put deep spirituality and learning on their agenda.”
Atlanta, Rabbi Salkin noted, has one of the country’s largest participation rates in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, an international franchise of adult Jewish studies courses.
However, in booming Sun Belt communities with large numbers of Jewish newcomers, it is not always easy to get people to affiliate, Rabbi Salkin said, noting that he is “concerned about the anomie that often accompanies our rootless mobile society.”
Rabbi Salkin said he will miss his synagogue and the “thickness of Jewish culture” in New York, but is looking forward to being part of a more cohesive Jewish community than New York’s.
“Because of our size and our geography it is often difficult to create a sense of communal cooperation” on Long Island, he said.