Most synagogues don’t hold press conferences to announce the purchase of a permanent location, and most synagogue press conferences aren’t attended by the mayor, the chief of police, three county commissioners, state and local representatives, and members of the Chamber of Commerce. But Congregation Beth Israel in Forsyth County, Georgia, is not most synagogues.
Located north of Atlanta, the county–which is the 11th fastest in population growth in the country and the fastest in the state–has only become home to a Jewish population in recent years, and until now had no religious place to call their own. Chabad of Forsyth came to town in June last year, and closed on a new property earlier this month. “This community is unique because we are, historically, the first Jewish presence in northern Georgia,” explains Chabad Rabbi Levi Mentz. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t find a minyan in Forsyth County, and now there are an estimated 1,700 Jews here!”
Dr. Scott Cooper, one of the first Jews in the county, has been waiting for this move for close to 30 years. “I love this area, but I felt bad that I always had to travel outside the county for religious worship–it wasn’t my home.”
Another long-time Forsyth resident, Alison Lupczynski, lives in the county with her twin boys. She’s always found it hard to bring up a Jewish family without a synagogue nearby. “We tried other synagogues further away, but they just weren’t the right fit.” One of her children encountered anti-Semitic comments at his middle school. “For us as a family,” notes Lupczynski, “this new synagogue has really been life-changing. It has given us a sense of community, and given my sons the opportunity to understand their heritage and where they come from.”
Rabbi Mentz and his wife Chaya were warmly greeted when they arrived in Forsyth County. In time for Chanukah last year, Chabad released a video in which the local sheriff, commissioner and state house representative welcomed the Jewish community to Forsyth County and thanked them for “playing a critical role in the success of our community.” The video quickly spread through the County fostering Jewish pride and confidence about their Jewish identity. Six days later, 300 people attended Forsyth’s first public menorah lighting.
At first, Chabad of Forsyth held services in a rented storefront, but they quickly outgrew the space and rented other spaces for larger events. 120 people attended a Rosh Hashanah dinner, over 100 joined adult education classes, 30 children enrolled in JUDA, Chabad’s Hebrew School, and 200 celebrated together at Chabad’s Purim party. When 150 people RSVP’d to a Shabbat dinner, they rented a large space for the event, prompting one community member to publicly declare that “It’s time for us to have our own place. We’re starting a building fund, and I’m giving the first $10,000!”
That figure was doubled and tripled that night by other donors. A building committee quickly formed, and within weeks they located a property and secured it with a down payment. “Everyone who lives here wants to build a serious infrastructure, and we’re all doing it together,” shares Rabbi Mentz. “People are getting their friends involved, donors are introducing me to others – we have an incredible community here, and they’re fully invested!”
Scott Cooper sits on the building committee. “We have big plans for this property. We’re going to raise money to renovate and build a full Jewish Community Center. It’s going to be a beacon of light.”
A fundraising campaign is underway, set to launch in August, and a Montessori preschool will open on the premises in September, along with an expansion of the JUDA educational program.
“This community is unique in the sense that, under the leadership of Rabbi Mentz, people are really coming together for this new synagogue,” explains Alison. “It’s more than just going to temple on Saturday–it’s being part of making a difference, and it’s really exciting.”
To learn more about Chabad of Forsyth, visit www.jewishforsyth.org.