600 Peachtree Battle Ave. NW
Atlanta, Georgia 30327
“There are in Atlanta a community of Israelites, principally from Poland and Russia, who do not subscribe to the reformed or American ritual … and who have services of their own”. The Atlanta Constitution October 8, 1886.
Look back some 120 years ago and you find a determined small group of men – less than twenty, who formed Congregation Ahawas Achim (Congregation of Brotherly Love) in a small room on Gilmer Street – in the vicinity of the current baseball stadium. And, indeed, that was a winning team, for the congregation continued to flourish and outgrow its physical homes.
They soon moved to a rented hall on Decatur Street next door to the Atlanta Police Department , and - in October of 1900, they laid – at the corner of Piedmont and Gilmer Street, the synagogue cornerstone … a building described as “ one of the largest and handsomest Orthodox houses of worship in the Southern states.” Women sat in the balcony, and Yiddish was the language for everything except prayers.
By June of 1920, the congregation had purchased land for a new building, and Rabbi Abraham Hirmes originated the Sisterhood, whose immediate projects were focused on raising money for the building fund for the synagogue at the corner of Washington Street and Woodward Avenue. About this time, there was an official name change from “Ahawas Achim” to “Ahavath Achim,” and it was during this period that Bible School, Junior Congregation, and late Friday night services developed.
In August of 1928, Rabbi Harry H. Epstein was elected spiritual leader of Ahavath Achim. Six weeks after his arrival, Rabbi Epstein gave Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons in English. Gradually, there was a shift to men and women sitting together. The Bat Mitzvah ceremony was institutionalized; educational programming was expanded and intensified. Rabbi Epstein was awarded a lifetime position in 1938. Mrs. Epstein’s warmth, wisdom and knowledge indelibly marked the congregation and wider community. In 1940 Cantor Joseph Schwartzman came to Ahavath Achim, introducing congregational singing as well as the choir.
Always progressive, the recognition of the need to be where members were moving, led to the building of the Education Center on 10th Street in 1941, providing classrooms, auditorium, library, and offices. About this time, the Synagogue opened the city’s first preschool under Jewish auspices.
Although Ahavath Achim was officially an Orthodox congregation, many of Rabbi Epstein’s innovations were aligned with the philosophy and practices of the Conservative Movement, which Ahavath Achim joined in 1952. A chapter of USY was organized; Sisterhood affiliated and became active in the national organization.
By 1944 synagogue leadership once more recognized the need for larger facilities and again followed the membership to the north, purchasing the current land on Peachtree Battle. The Washington Street building was sold to make way for the expressway; the Educational Center, too, was sold; and the congregation moved into temporary quarters until the High Holidays of 1958 when the congregation moved into our current home, enabling us to live out our welcoming name as we host large community events.
In 1966, Cantor Isaac Goodfriend, and his much beloved wife Betty, both of Blessed Memory, became a special part of AA until his retirement in 1995 as Cantor Emeritus.
Upon the retirement of Rabbi Epstein in 1982 and his being named Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman became Senior Rabbi. In his tenure, too, the congregation benefited from the involvement of his wife Rae, and – until his retirement in 2002, singly and as a team, they worked to ensure that egalitarianism flourished, programming for all ages expanded, community outreach and interfaith activities broadened, and educational opportunities – formal and experiential, multiplied. Upon his retirement Rabbi Goodman was named Senior Scholar.
Rabbi Neil Sandler now serves as Senior Rabbi, continuing a long record of leading rabbis, outstanding cantors, dedicated teachers, staff, and employees – as well as caring and involved members. True to this legacy, the AA family still opens wide our hearts and our doors, progressively living out our modern Jewish lives and eagerly facing the future … going from strength to strength.
Material for this history was gathered from the Sisterhood Directory, congregation’s previous website, and Doris Goldstein’s book, From Generation to Generation, with thanks to the original authors – and the hope that you will go to the source materials and learn even more!