Maintaining Jewish identity in Northwest Georgia
By: Saif Sarfani
Although Judaism is the second largest religion behind Christianity in the United States, in a small southern town like Rome, Georgia, it’s a minority.
Shelly Peller, a sixth-generation Roman Jew, works as a physical therapist and said the Jewish community has been active in Rome since the mid-1800s.
“Jews were frequently the merchants on Broad Street,” Shelly said. “Traditionally, they were supposed to be closed on Saturday. That’s our Sabbath. If they closed on Saturday, that was their major business day and they would not have been able to make it financially.”
Shelly said the merchants often stayed open for their customers while maintaining flexibility with Jewish holidays and customs.
When it comes to faith and work, Shelly believes that providing patients with dignity and respect echoes Judaism’s core teachings.
“It’s amazing because when you become a healthcare provider you are already promising to treat people with dignity and respect regardless of race, color, creed [or] national origin,” Shelly said. “That is a tenant of Judaism as well: we treat each other the way we would want to be treated.”
Dr. Jeff Peller, a rheumatologist at Harbin Clinic, is Shelly’s husband. He often discusses faith with his patients.
“Most of my patients care that I am a person of faith and believe in God,” he said.
“I point out to my patients that we want the best care that we can get. It shouldn’t matter if one person is of one faith or another.”
According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 4.2 million American adults who say they are Jewish by religion, representing 1.8 percent of the U.S. adult population. However, Jewish has different definitions to people. For some, it refers to being raised Jewish or have a Jewish parent, but they identify as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.
For Anne Lewinson, associate professor of anthropology at Berry College, it was the opposite. She grew up in a non-religious household, but started practicing Judaism in graduate school.
“I did synagogue regularly throughout graduate school,” Lewinson said. “You know kind of learned how prayer is done, and a little bit more about the traditions and so on.”
Every year, Lewinson debates whether she’ll teach classes during Jewish high holidays like Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. During these holidays, normal work is not permitted.
“I think there’s a part of me that feels that it’s not quite fair that the observation of my faith interferes with the education of students who are not of my faith,” Lewinson said. “And actually, this year, I decided to cancel class on that Thursday because my son was going to be the one who was going to blow the shofar [a wind instrument used in Jewish religious ceremonies] in the synagogue as part of the service.”
Lewinson and the Pellers are part of Rome’s reformed Jewish community which is comprised of 30 families. They attend Rodeph Sholom, a synagogue in downtown Rome, that has been active for more than 140 years.
Reformed Jewish congregations embrace diversity through acceptance of interfaith families, female rabbis, optional dietary laws and bringing faith and critical study to sacred texts.
“We are fortunate to have an established synagogue here in town,” Lewinson said. “It’s a very welcoming place; they welcome anybody who is part of the faith in any way shape or form.”
Rabbi Judith Beiner is the community chaplain at Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta and serves as a part-time rabbi at Rodeph Sholom for monthly services.
“The Jewish community in Rome is not growing,” Beiner said. “There was a time where there was between 50 to 100 congregants and a full-time rabbi. It’s a small community with a small footprint.”
Beiner said that she faces criticism because of her gender.
“As a woman rabbi, I face a good amount of discrimination,” she said. “In spite of the fact that liberal Judaism embraces women in roles traditionally unavailable, people are slow to change, and many have a hard time seeing women in leadership clergy roles.”
Beiner also finds that anti-Semitism is a growing problem within the Jewish community and that interfaith dialogue is important to remedying it.
Interfaith dialogue is emphasized at Rodeph Sholom with education sessions, social activities, potluck dinners, observance of major and minor holidays and welcoming non-Jewish individuals into the synagogue.
This reflects what is central to Judaism in all denominations: personal conduct and ethical behavior with other people.
“We’re supposed to treat other people ethically and we’re supposed to make the world a better place,” Lewinson said. “And ultimately, the people who will come after us will remember us with affection and remember we helped our society become more just.”