This February, a banner was raised in Dahlonega, Georgia. The banner, falsely, proclaimed the downtown building it was on a historic hall for the Ku Klux Klan. It provoked instant backlash.
Reading about this event in the news following the uproar, I learned of a small Jewish community in Dahlonega: Shalom B’Harim. I went down to Dahlonega to write about their reaction to the banner, and the story was published in Moment’s May/June issue. What I didn’t get to do in that story was celebrate the community itself, which is non-denominational, welcoming, and warm.
The Jews of Dahlonega, Georgia
Shalom B’Harim (“Peace in the Mountains”) is a small congregation of Jews in Dahlonega, Georgia, a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The group started in 2001 when two local Jewish mothers got together to give their young children access to a Jewish environment closer than Atlanta.
Since then they have grown to a group of around 70 members, with around 30 regular attendees at their monthly Friday night Shabbos services. Aside from a new social group on the other side of a mountain, Shalom B’Harim is the only Georgia Jewish congregation that meets regularly north of North Fulton and Cobb Counties.
“We were not affiliated with anything when we lived in Atlanta,” says Elliot Brass, the first president of Shalom B’Harim. He and his wife, Leslie, joined the nascent congregation shortly after moving north around twenty years ago, when the group was still just meeting for an occasional Shabbos dinner. “I was never one to be active in anything, but I’ve really realized how important it is. They wanted people to sign up for the board. I enjoyed the group so much, I said, ‘I will be president, if everyone here stays on the board.’ And that’s how it started.”
“It’s been spiritually nice, and just really really warm,” says Brass. “There are still some [locals] that can’t believe we don’t go to church. They say, ‘We know you go to temple, but you don’t go to any church?’”
In the fall of 2001 Reverend Frank Colliday of Dahlonega Presbyterian Church contacted the group, saying that he and his flock wanted them to know that “their home was our home.”
“Our group was overwhelmed by the generosity of this offer,” says Stan Applebaum, the current president. “We did not know how we were being received in the community and were purposely keeping a low profile.”
There are 3,500 Jews in the 20 northernmost counties in Georgia, comprising just 0.41 percent of the total population, according to the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University. While Dahlonega is reportedly a pleasant and welcoming town, skinheads and white supremacists do sometimes make some skittish.
“There’s always some concern that people have, people who lived other places then moved here,” says Stan Applebaum. “When we started this organization, certain people didn’t want us to advertise in the newspaper. Now we’ve been advertising in the newspaper for years, and everything has been fine. It was more the fear.”
“Nobody is overtly anti-Semitic to me,” says longtime congregant Les Green. He’s also a member of a group called the Sabra Riders, a Jewish motorcycle club based out of Atlanta. “They know I carry, and they’re not going to come onto me like that. Most of my friends, the people I hang with at the cigar shop, at the liquor store, all the good places, you know? They know I’m Jewish, and they support Israel. They’re friends of Israel. They’re my friends. And they don’t tolerate that stuff.”
Dea Devereaux is a member of the Dahlonega Presbyterian Church and a frequent attendee of Shalom B’Harim’s services. She says that despite unpleasant incidents every couple years, such as the raising of a Ku Klux Klan banner downtown in February, Dahlonega is a very harmonious place.
“This is a beautiful place. It’s a mountain community that’s full of love and inter-ministry situations, and neighbors helping neighbors,” says Devereaux. “In all my years I’ve never seen any white sheets or anything. Obviously where there’s humans there’s going to be different opinions. My deal is, you don’t try to convince me of your way, and I won’t try to convince you, and we live and let live. It’s up to the Big One anyway.
Their regular rabbi is Mitch Cohen, who also works full time as a construction professional liability insurance broker near Atlanta. He’s been with Shalom B’Harim since February 2002, when he got a call from the Union of Reform Judaism saying that there was a small congregation up north looking for someone to lead services. He’s been with them ever since. At the time he was still a lay leader, but in 2011 he was officiated.
“For better or worse, I’ve had a lot of influence on how things are done up here,” says Cohen. “This is the most laid-back, welcoming, open congregation I have ever experienced. There is no politics.”
Around ten years ago Shalom B’Harim received a Torah as a “permanent loan” from a congregant’s family. The Torah is about 150 years old, and purportedly survived the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia.
The Torah is kept in a wooden case built by Stan Applebaum, referred to affectionately as Shalom B’Harim’s mishkan. Between monthly services Applebaum takes the Torah home, or Cohen takes it to use for bar mitzvahs and weddings further south.
Rosemary Levy Zumwalt first came to Dahlonega because she wanted a weekend getaway from her high pressure job as Dean of Anthropology at Agnes Scott College. After retiring, she and her husband moved to Dahlonega full-time. “I would never have thought that I would come to Dahlonega and find the closest of Jewish friends, but I have, here, more than any place else. We’re isolated here, in a very Christian environment, and so we’ve formed a very solid group together.”
Mike and Deborah Arnold live in Dahlonega as well. While they were concerned about the banner incident as well as the recent uptick in hate crimes nationally, they think north Georgia has gotten much more tolerant over the years.
“We went to a menorah lighting [recently] in Forsyth County,” Mike says. “I remember as a kid, it was a very racist, very hateful county. But at this menorah lighting there were three county commissioners and the sheriff, and they got up there and said ‘welcome, you’re part of our community.’ In the 70s, he’d have been thrown out of office in a week.”
“I would say the average local does not know anything about Judaism,” says Wendy Martin, treasurer of Shalom B’Harim. “It is a religious community, there are a lot of religious organizations, there’s a very active interfaith group. Jewish people have been very well accepted, when I first moved here with my husband I was very concerned and very quiet about being Jewish, but over time I realized that people are very open to it, they want to know about it, they’re not afraid.”