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North Georgia Jewish community small, but close knit

POSTED: April 5, 2014 1:30 a.m.

While many Christians prepare for Easter with egg hunts and religious services during Holy week, members of the Jewish faith are anticipating the arrival of one of its major observances: Passover.

Beginning the evening of April 14, Passover — called Pesach in Hebrew, the historical language of the Jews — commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

"The Hebrew name for Egypt actually means ‘constricted place,’" said Rabbi Mitch Cohen of the Shalom b’Harim synagogue in Dahlonega. "I like to use Passover as a time to look at where I have constricted myself, and then figure out how I free myself from that."

According to tradition, the Jews didn’t have time to bake bread before they left Egypt. They survived in the desert by eating flat unleavened bread. In recognition of their sacrifice, modern Jews eat matzo, or traditional unleavened bread, during the weeklong course of Passover.

"The matzo represents the heaviness that weighs me down," Cohen said.

When asked to explain his religion, Cohen summed it up in a single sentence.

"It is a tradition that is sourced in history, lives in the present and is based on deeds and actions with little or no emphasis on the future," he said.

Though Jews believe in an afterlife, Cohen said, it is not a primary objective like it is in other monotheistic religions such as Christianity or Islam. Instead, the focus is on the here and now.

"Everything that we do is a function of living in the now," the rabbi said. "Forming acts of loving kindness and making the world a better place, as well as living a life of ethics based on our Torah and commandments."

That sentiment appealed to Brad Gadberry , a member of Shalom b’Harim and recent convert to Judaism.

The Dahlonega man first became exposed to the religion when he met his wife, who is Jewish. He converted because he felt a connection to the community and the texts that he didn’t feel while attending a Christian church.

"I have always believed in God, but I was never comfortable in Christian churches, and I tried many of them," he said. "I felt like an imposter. Like I didn’t fit in.

"I started going to Jewish services, and it felt like I was home. I have a real sense of belonging."

Unlike many religions, proselytism is mostly discouraged in the Jewish faith and the conversion process is long and intensive. Gadberry spent three years studying Jewish tradition and Hebrew to convert.

"Conversion is more about joining the people and becoming a Jew than just accepting the faith," the Dahlonega resident said. "It’s like an immigrant who comes to the U.S.

"They have to study and show they are serious to become a citizen. That is what the conversion process was like for me."

Leslie Green of Sautee Nacoochee experienced a different process.

Green was born to a Jewish family but wasn’t raised practicing the faith. Roughly 30 years ago, he decided to make t’shuva, or a reaffirmation of his Jewish faith.

"I feel like Judaism brings you closer to God," Green said. "We only consider one God, and he has multiple personalities and consciences.

"It helps me obtain a greater understanding of what the scripture means, and what it means to follow in your master’s footsteps," he continued. "It brings more meaning to my life than I ever got from any religion ever."

In terms of practices, Jews place great emphasis on ritual observances and community connections. Two of the main tenets of the religion concern dietary laws and the observance of Shabbat, a day of rest and abstinence from working that falls of the seventh day of the Jewish calendar.

Dietary laws have many different interpretations among the different sects of Judaism. Cohen, who considers himself a post-denominational liberal Jew, refrains from eating pork or shellfish and doesn’t mix milk and meat, but he will eat nonkosher beef, chicken and turkey. Conservative or Orthodox Jews, however, adhere to stricter guidelines.

An estimated 450 Jews live in Hall County and an estimated 800 in Habersham, Lumpkin, Gilmer and neighboring counties, according to data from the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Overall, Jews make up less than 1 percent of the area population, but they are very connected.

"It is a great community here, but there are not a lot of us," Gadberry said. "People drive in from all over North Georgia and North Carolina to attend services."

Shalom b’Harim meets once a month at Dahlonega Presbyterian Church, at 150 Warwick St. For more information visit www.shalombharim.org, call 706-864-0801 or email Cohen at mcohen5@comcast.net.


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