One of the most popular tourist destinations in the American South, Savannah, Georgia is a world of exciting history and activity. Rich with landmarks from over 275 years, the city boasts unique architecture, Civil War commemorative tours, and a long list of beautiful squares and parks. In addition, Savannah’s Tybee Island provides a beach atmosphere for those who want to relax on and off-shore. Interestingly, Savannah also hosts a small but thriving Jewish community. The Savannah Jewish Federation offers family services and community resources, and there are a number of places to find kosher food. The city has three shuls: one for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations, respectively. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Avigdor and Rebbetzin Rochel Slatus of the Bnai Brith Jacob Synagogue.
KG: How did you come to Savannah?
Rabbi Slatus: I was in the Mirrer Yeshiva, and I had a friend who was pursuing the rabbi position in Savannah at the time. He went down and recognized a great void in the community there. He wanted to introduce a kollel and asked me to submit a resume for the position of rosh kollel. I wasn’t really interested, but I sent in the resume anyway. In the end, my friend who originally looked into the position couldn’t fulfill the requirements needed, and because they had my resume, they ended up calling me. We weren’t looking to leave New York at the time. My wife had a job teaching in Prospect Park Yeshiva, but we thought we’d go down and see. We were very impressed with sincerity and genuine desire for spiritual growth in the community. Maybe it was bashert. There were other candidates, but we were eventually offered the position. We originally thought it’d be for a short time, maybe a couple of years, but we’ve been here for 31 years now.
How big was the community when you first arrived, and how has it changed since then?
The community started out with about 70 people in shul on Shabbos (men and women) and the day school had 29 children. There was not a lot of Torah education. They had had rabbis before, but it was at a point where nobody was there. We did our best, and started giving classes to try to give the people a flavor of the beauty and insights of Torah. We both give classes on many topics. Now the day school has somewhere between 120 and 140 children, and about 200 people in shul on Shabbos, with a minyan every day. We have our own camps and activities on Shabbos, including outreach and youth programs, covering all levels.
How does each of you see your role in the community?
Rabbi Slatus: Primarily as educators. We are trying to bridge the gap of lack of education and appreciation by tearing down the walls that divide people from their magnificent heritage. If we can reach them with warmth and friendship, we can penetrate the barriers that the human mind creates. We obviously must take care of our routine responsibilities, but try to break down the walls and present the beautiful way the Torah is supposed to be presented. Never underestimate the greatness of the Jewish soul. A person may not be able to read Hebrew, but can be touched just by hearing the words.
Rebbetzin Slatus: There are many aspects to the rebbetzin’s role. Making a Kiddush Hashem in how the rebbetzin conducts herself, speaks, how her family behaves and interacts; it’s all a reflection on yiddishkeit to the congregation, and it should be as positive as possible.
Rabbi Slatus: We started a full time kollel 18 years ago. It was put together to satisfy the needs of the community. We have such wonderful people here, and the men learn every night. I enjoy the fact that people are learning on this level, and can also reach out and inspire others.
Rebbetzin Slatus: I helped build an assisted living facility for elderly people who still wanted to keep kosher and Shabbos. It was so convenient for people because it is glatt kosher and right next to shul. After the facility was built, a group of doctors happened to hear one of my classes on the topic of mipnei sayvah takum and they wanted me to help with a kosher retirement community. Nobody else really wanted to do it, so I took it on single-handedly. I also give my classes there and transliterate the prayers for the residents. There are people who knew nothing about Judaism their whole lives and are now keeping kosher for the first time.