Our Town: BrookhavenMulti-cultural synagogue celebrates 100 years

100 Years and Counting

Congregation Or VeShalom kicks off its centenary celebrations at 7 p.m. Feb. 9 with a free lecture by Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of New York’s historic Congregation Shearith Israel.

1681 North Druid Hills Road

404-633-1737; orveshalom.org

In 1914, two Atlanta synagogues joined forces to form Congregation Or VeShalom, and the union has lasted. While Atlanta now has nearly 40 synagogues, Or VeShalom is still among the oldest, marking its 100th anniversary this year.

“We started on Central Avenue downtown, then went to North Highland Avenue in 1948,” said Hayyim Kassorla, the congregation’s rabbi for the last nine years. “Then in 1970, we broke ground on a new site on North Druid Hills Road in Brookhaven and moved in a year later. And we are still here, with about 450 families.”

That’s not to say that the relationship has been without its ups and downs. “The times are always changing, and with the economic downturn, we, like every synagogue, have struggled to maintain membership and encourage the young to join,” said Kassorla. “But we have had growth by emphasizing family togetherness and warmth. I’m not a native Atlantan, but I’ve been told this is the warmest congregation in Atlanta. It’s definitely a place where we know your name.”

The congregation’s mission has long been to have a synagogue that serves as a gathering place in good and bad times, a center of study and a house of prayer.

“All three of those things have been happening here for 100 years,” said Kassorla. “We have that continuity. We also have members who have been here for years - we even had one who has led a Boy Scout troop here for 70 years. So our challenge now is to build on our past and plan for the future.”

The New York-born Kassorla follows in the footsteps of rabbis from Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and Uruguay, making him the first leader to have been born in the United States. The heritage of those countries is still well-represented in the Sephardic congregation.

“We are like Heinz ketchup - 57 varieties for all different areas,” said Kassorla. “Our founders were from Rhodes and Turkey, and our members are largely Jews from the Middle East. One of the real joys of being associated with this congregation is the cuisine; it comes from all these different areas. We sometimes have dinners themed after our members’ birth places - Morocco, Greece or Egypt, for instance.”

Regardless of background, Kassorla emphasizes that everyone is invited to participate in the synagogue’s life.

“Sephardic Jews lived in harmony with their neighbors, and that attitude has been passed down,” he said. “We have always welcomed Jews of all backgrounds – and opinions.”

This year, the congregation is planning a series of events to highlight its history, starting with a lecture on Feb. 9 by Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, an historic Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York City. The rest of the year will be highlighted with concerts, lectures, food demonstrations and a special Torah dedication in August.

“This sort of anniversary only comes once in a lifetime, so it’s very important,” said Kassorla. “It’s a time to appreciate the past, plan for the future and secure the next 100 years.”