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Jewish community celebrates Hanukkah in Hall
Jew are holding on to their traditions by lighting menorah
1224HanukkahFood2
Cresswind at Lake Lanier residents Marilyn Glasser swaps Hanukkah stories with fellow resident Harriet Gershkowitz recently at the community clubhouse.

Chanukah at the Collection

When: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 26

Where: The Collection at Forsyth, 410 Peachtree Parkway, Cumming

Cost: Free

More info: 404-594-2092 or office@jewishforsyth.org

 

Congregation Beth Israel

Where: 600 Peachtree Parkway #110, Cumming

While a large Christmas tree and wreath were displayed, no decorations represented Glasser’s Jewish faith. 

“I wanted a menorah,” she said, referencing the candelabra used to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. “It just wasn’t right that there wasn’t a menorah.”

Therefore, Glasser sprang into action, coordinating with the community manager to buy and display the symbol of the Jewish Festival of Lights in the clubhouse next to the Christmas tree. The menorah has since been in the clubhouse each year during Hanukkah, which begins today.

Glasser said it was important to her to have her faith represented since the Jewish community in North Georgia is small compared to her home state of New York.

Unlike the Jewish “high holidays” of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, she said Hanukkah is not a religious holiday, but rather a celebration of traditions, something she fears is slipping away.

“It’s symbolism and another way of saying, we’re Jewish,” she said. “It’s a tradition more than anything else. And I think that is what’s being lost overtime, is the tradition.”

Because Jews are often in the religious minority, particularly in the South, Glasser said it can be difficult to find others who share her religion and culture. She estimated of the nearly 1,100 residents at Cresswind, approximately 30 Jews live in the neighborhood.

Glasser said the small numbers are caused, in part, by people marrying outside the faith, which often leads to abandoning Judaism in favor of other religions. In her own family, some of her grandchildren and nephews have grown up in non-Jewish households or converted to other faiths.

Although she is supportive and accepting of the changes, Glasser said she is saddened to see Judaism shrinking.

“It doesn’t make me feel good because the Jewish religion is going to be dead,” she said. “As small as we are now, it’s going to be so much smaller.”

New York native Leslie Brass, who lives in Murrayville, said Hanukkah celebrations have also changed in her family over the years as her children have married non-Jews. 

“Both of my children have married Christians, so sometimes we combine Christmas and Hanukkah when they fall together,” she said. “When you combine traditions, sometimes you don’t do everything that you might have done, but there’s a richness in combining traditions.”

Harriet Gershkowitz, who belongs to the Cresswind Shalom Club, said each generation gets more distanced from the customs of the past. But she works to teach her grandchildren about her faith to preserve her family’s practices. 

“I feel it’s important that my children and grandchildren know where they came from and what their history is,” Gershkowitz said. “My grandparents came from Russia and they made a life here. And they continued their traditions, and I think I should continue mine.”

Glasser said synagogues, Jewish houses of worship,  were historically a place for Jews to build community. This community has been difficult to find in North Georgia, she said, with only a few synagogues in the area.

“When I moved to Atlanta when I was in my 20s, we joined a synagogue because that was just a must,” she said. “Our social activity revolved around the synagogue. Life was very different.”

Gershkowitz and Glasser are involved in the Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue in Cumming that opened this fall. Rabbi Levi Mentz said despite the small number of Jews in the area, the congregation reaches around 300 families in North Georgia and hopes to expand.

“Jewish life is now vibrant here in the Lake Lanier area,” Mentz said. “It’s really special to see what’s going on. There is such love and connection with the Jewish families that live here.”  

The congregation is currently making plans to build a Jewish community center in the area. In addition to worship services, the synagogue offers faith groups and Jewish education programs for children and young adults.

Learning about the faith and actively practicing the customs, Mentz said, is the best way to preserve traditions despite changes to the culture.

“The more we study, the more we get in touch with the essence of what made Judaism such a boon thousands of years ago and why it’s so important,” he said. “But action is what keeps us connected and rooted in our traditions in a practical way.”

Rabbi Mentz said a majority of families involved with the congregation are families with mixed religious backgrounds. He said rather than focusing on the differences between individuals, the goal of Congregation Beth Israel is to promote education about Judaism and create connections within the Jewish community.

“The foundation of our community is love, acceptance and embracing everyone,” he said. “We are focusing on making sure every single Jew knows that they have a home and that they have a community. When people have a sense of community, that is the glue that keeps every single one of us together.”

Glasser said it’s not that she doesn’t want to associate with non-Jews, she just wants to belong to a community that shares her cultural values and customs. She said the Jewish values of community, family and respect for the past are something all religions share.

“Don’t (think) that we’re closed or not open to socializing with others,” she said. “We certainly aren’t. It’s just that our religion is something that is fading away, and that’s hurtful and painful. It’s something that I want to continue.”

But Gershkowitz and Glasser have continued coordinating menorah lighting and prayer ceremonies at the Cresswind clubhouse. This year’s activity will be at 5:30 p.m. all eight nights of Hanukkah from Dec. 24-31. The two women said they welcome people of all faiths to attend and learn more about Hanukkah. 

“It’s important for the community to understand that we are here and to know what our traditions are,” Gershkowitz said. “We don’t need to be loud about it. We just do our thing.”

Congregation Beth Israel will also be sponsoring a Hanukkah celebration at The Collection at Forsyth at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 26. The event will include music and food and the lighting of a 9-foot outdoor stainless steel menorah.

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