Atlanta's Jewish population surges

60 percent rise may represent trends in American Jewish community.

atlanta 88 (photo credit: )
atlanta 88
(photo credit: )
When Rabbis Mario Karpuj and Analia Bortz chose to leave South America for a stable country and a vibrant Jewish community, the couple weighed two US cities: Atlanta and New York. When they visited Atlanta, they fell "in love with the community," Karpuj said, noting the variety of Jewish day schools for their daughters and the fact that so many others were choosing to make Atlanta their home. "This was the place to be," he said. The couple moved in 2000. After starting a Conservative, egalitarian congregation that he and his wife co-officiate, Karpuj has seen membership soar from 50 people to nearly 300 in two and a half years. When they applied through the Conservative movement to start the congregation and lead it, some 15 applications were submitted in just three days for the same position. Such popularity is "unheard of," Karpuj said, suggesting it reflected the draw of Atlanta. Atlanta's Jewish population has risen by 60 percent in the past decade, to 120,000. A recent survey of the community could provide insight into a new landscape of American Jewry, said Jack Ukeles, a New York-based demographer who conducted the study for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and compared its findings to one he conducted a decade earlier. "It represents a much larger trend of dramatic shifts that continue between the older, more settled Jewish communities of the Midwest and Northeast and the newer communities of the South and the West," Ukeles said. National Jewish agenda-setting should include helping new communities cope with growth, he said. At the same time, Atlanta is unusual - a "hybrid community" of natives and newcomers, which creates challenges for integration while providing benefits such as certain institutions that are already in place, Ukeles said. "For us, the opportunities of growth in Atlanta are tempered by the challenge of quickly and meaningfully engaging newcomers in the Atlanta Jewish community," said Steven Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. Rakitt expressed concern over findings that showed low affiliation rates and the lengthy period of time it takes for people to feel connected to the Jewish community. "Those are things that we collectively as a community need to pay attention to, because we are a community of newcomers," he said. The picture Ukeles draws is not one of old and new Atlantans splitting the community in two. As the city has sprawled in many directions, so has its Jewish community - which, according to Ukeles's data, has concentrated itself in seven distinct areas. One of the study's most striking findings underscores a key theme - Atlanta Jewry's twin challenges of geography and integration. In one neighborhood hub for Jewish organizations, the intermarriage rate is only 10%, while in a more distant suburb, 80% of Jews are intermarried. The community has grown in tandem with the city's general population. A decade ago, Jewish households made up 4.4% of the total population; now, the number is 4.3%. Those who come to Atlanta plan to stay, Ukeles found. Only 3% said they were likely to move in the next few years, meaning growth should continue for some time. "Atlanta's got the right combination of history and youth and energy and space and the right economy," said Michael Jacobs, editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times. "There's no reason to think Atlanta's going to slow down." For longtime community members, news of growth is not surprising. "We've seen it coming," said Sherry Frank, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Atlanta chapter for 25 years. "It's really a boom town." Still, Frank was startled to realize the density of Jews in an area where Jewish activity is less concentrated. Given the city's traffic congestion, an event's location can make all the difference. "I think it's a wake-up call to us to expand everything we're doing," to make Jewish life accessible to Jews all over the city, she said. With 680 students, the Alfred and Adele Davis Academy is the largest Reform day school in the country, said Sidney Kirschner, the head of the school. But despite the emergence and growth of Jewish schooling, 2,000 Jewish students attend day school in Atlanta, which signals a lag, he said. "Part of the reason it hasn't kept pace" is because the institutions are not sufficiently spread out to reach the population, Kirschner said. Jacobs, the newspaper editor - who moved to Atlanta just last year - thinks the community is overly concerned about low affiliation rates. "Affiliation is crucial," as is outreach, he said. But worrying about the affiliation rate is a mistake, Jacobs added, because community members are young and haven't put down roots yet. "It takes a while to get to know what's here and where you want to join up." Of greater concern is uniting a dispersed population, he said. "The only things that are holding us together across all these different counties and towns is the actual Jewishness that we have," he said. The community must thicken those strands to "to tie everybody together."