There’s the old joke about two Jews deserted on an island who build three shuls. Like many attempts at humor, there is a certain degree of truth to this adage. On several three-block radii in Flatbush, Kew Gardens Hills or Borough Park there may be as many as 10 shuls. Of course, each individual has every right to seek out the minyan that is best suitable for him/her. But in the inviting city of Savannah, Georgia, options for an Orthodox minyan are pleasantly limited to only one Orthodox synagogue, and it has been that way for nearly 150 years.
The history of the Jewish community in Savannah goes all the way back to 1773, with the formation of the Georgia colony and immigration of Spanish-Portuguese Jews. But it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Eastern European Jews found their way to Savannah, and in 1861 Congregation Bnai Brith Jacob (the BBJ) was founded. At the time it was one of two Orthodox shuls in Savannah, along with the Sephardic synagogue. But over time the latter became a Reform temple, and today the BBJ is the only Orthodox shul in town.
Congregation Bnai Brith Jacob
Since its establishment, the BBJ has moved buildings twice, and now is home to perhaps the most fascinating and beautiful artwork of any shul in the world. Opposite the synagogue’s massive ahron hakodesh stand two 30-foot murals depicting the symbols of the 12 tribes, historic events from Tanach, symbolic images for each Jewish holiday, and many more intriguing designs. One can literally spend hours looking at the 56-year-old paintings. But these mesmerizing pieces of art are just one facet of what makes Savannah so unique.
Savannah has only one synagogue, and the people follow one rav. What also sets Savannah apart from many of the Jewish communities in America, aside from the magnificent Spanish moss that decorates the city’s trees, are its deeply seeded roots. In fact, some of the Jews living there today are fourth and even fifth generation Savannians.
“We don’t get caught up in politics between different shuls as other neighborhoods might,” said Harry Portman, who is a fourth generation Savannian on his father’s side (third on his mother’s). Harry, a junior at YU, hopes to attend medical school near Savannah, and eventually start a practice in town. “I look forward to coming home. Growing up in Savannah was great. There are real feelings of being a family with the community. Everyone is either ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt,’ even if they aren’t related to you.”
While Savannah is rich with Jewish history, there are only an estimated 3,500 Jews in the whole city. There is only one Reform temple and one Conservative synagogue. But it is the Orthodox synagogue that has the greatest numbers, with 475 families as members. Average Shabbos attendance is closer to about 250 people on Saturday morning. The answer to this large discrepancy is kiruv.
At least 50 percent of the shomer-Shabbos Jews in Savannah are baalei teshuva. In fact, the very first chapter of NCSY was started in Savannah over 50 years ago. The NCSY and BBJ have spent decades promoting and maintaining the aspects of a frum life in the community. Members of the BBJ kollel are all active in community outreach, teaching classes, involving themselves in shul functions, and setting up private chavrusahs with members of the neighborhood. The fact that some of the kollel members are baalei teshuva themselves is part of why kiruv has been so successful in Savannah. The BBJ doesn’t charge for seats during the high holidays when more than 800 people attend services. Some of these people strike up relationships with the more active shul goers, and slowly start becoming more interested in Orthodoxy.
Rabbi Adam Singer of the local kollel and Rabbi Ephraim Travis, formerly in the kollel
But despite the growth in Orthodoxy in the area in recent years, the community’s growth has remained somewhat stagnant. The rav of the BBJ, Rabbi Avigdor Slatus, says that the key to growth in Savannah is dependent on one factor: a high school.
Savannah has one lower and middle school under Orthodox auspices: Rambam Day School, which has approximately 200 students from nursery through 8th grade. But when it comes time for high school, the young Orthodox teens of Savannah have several options, none of which is attending a yeshiva day school near home. Some parents send their sons and daughters to boarding yeshivas in Chicago, Memphis, Milwaukee and Baltimore, among other cities, while others decide to enroll their teens in local private schools, and hire Jewish tutors for them on the side.
Rambam Day School
Opportunities to start a new school have come and gone. While there is an empty building standing right next to the BBJ, built explicitly to be the high school the community is lacking, it has only been used for Shabbos groups till now. The main issue preventing the start of the high school is that some families would not want a co-ed high school, but to have large enough class sizes, the high school would have to be co-ed. Rabbi Slatus, who received his s’micha from the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, seems determined to have the school begin. “With a high school, the community would have more to offer young families. Some of the young men and women who grew up in Savannah are weary to return here because they don’t want to have to send their kids away for school,” said Rabbi Slatus, “A high school would change everything.”
Certainly real estate prices aren’t preventing any families from moving in. Lovely three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes sell for as little as $195,000, and gorgeous five-bedroom, three-bathroom houses (with large backyards and/or pools as well) go for about $500,000. “Most people up north are shocked when they hear how inexpensive it is to buy a home here,” said real estate appraiser Edwin Cooper, who is a fourth generation Savannian, and member of the BBJ. Like many of Savannah’s Jews, Cooper was born and raised in the community, and has raised his own three children there as well.
Rabbi Avigdor Slatus
Savannah has a fully functional mikvah and even an eruv. While there are currently no kosher eateries, there are two kosher Krispy Kreme doughnut shops in Savannah. There have been kosher eateries in the past, yet none has been able to get by solely with the support of the Jewish community. In recent years the owners of a meat restaurant switched to a (successful) kosher catering service, providing a wide variety of foods (including baked goods) for the kashurus observant in southeast Georgia. A kosher coffee shop that did in fact do well for a few years saw its business evaporate when a Starbucks opened up down the block. Several stores sell kosher wines and packaged goods.
There may be no kosher restaurants, but Savannah does have an abundance of heart. Call it hachnachus orchim or call it southern hospitality, either way the people of Savannah are as warm, friendly and giving as any Jewish community across the globe. Their accents exude an inviting sense of calm. Smiles are abundant and sincere, and it’s easy for visitors to get sucked in to the sweetness of Savannah.
Take this recent example. The BBJ, in collaboration with the local NCSY chapter, wanted to have a family-friendly concert during Chol Hamoed Succos. After interviewing several candidates, they hired the up-and-coming Jewish rock band Yaakov Chesed. Jerry Portman, a member of the BBJ, sponsored the concert in memory of his parents. As owner of the Portman’s Music Superstore chain in Georgia, Portman provided all the equipment for the performance free of charge.
Rambam students displaying their school pride
However, some members of the group had to come erev yom tov for the Sunday afternoon gig. Having never been to Savannah before, Yaakov Chesed was a bit apprehensive about spending so much time with “southern strangers.”
But from the moment they arrived, the young men in Yaakov Chesed were treated like royalty. Rabbi Moshe Rose, the beloved NCSY director in Savannah, made sure the band members had not only a nice house to stay in over the chag, but also “booked” the band at six different homes (including a meal with the Portman family) for the three-day yom tov.
“It wasn’t very hard,” said Rabbi Rose, originally of Toronto. “Once people heard there would be guests who needed meals, we had more than enough offers for them. In fact some families were upset that they didn’t get to have the guys over.” Two of these families ended up having the band over for a Malaveh Malkeh Saturday night and dinner Sunday night. “We couldn’t believe how amazing the people down there are,” said band guitarist Michael Shapiro of Woodmere, N.Y. “Every meal was literally a feast! I was nervous my fingers would be too fat for my guitar by Sunday. We all feel so blessed to have been able to spend so much time with such an incredible and friendly community.”
As things stand, Savannah is currently working on plans for a yeshiva high school to open in the fall of 2009. And with its advent, the community will be primed for growth. But one of the women in the community, who wished to be quoted anonymously, is just a tad nervous about things getting too big. “I’ve lived in Savannah my whole life, and raised my kids here. I do hope the community grows, but also hope that we don’t get too big. I love the fact that we’re such a close, tight-knit town . . . We’re the secret of the south.”
But even without the addition of a high school, many of the young men and women who were raised in Savannah couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. “I definitely plan to move back here when I’m done with school,” said Yeshiva University sophomore Shaka Berry, who has lived in Savannah his whole life. “Savannah is home.”