Shalom b’Harim is a non-affiliated Synagogue situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northeast Georgia. A recent survey indicated that its participants are 60% Reform, 20% Conservative and 20% other. Services are conducted using the Reform prayer book, Gates of Prayer. Shalom b’Harim is located in Gainesville, Georgia having moved there from Dahlonega in June 2019.
The beginnings of what came to be Shalom b’Harim occurred in 1999-2000. It began as the vision of two women in Dahlonega who wished to retain their Jewish identity by sharing Friday night dinners. The nearest synagogue was an hour away in Atlanta or Athens, Georgia. There was no identifiable Jewish community in the north Georgia mountains although Jews were drawn to the area because of the three Jewish summer camps located further to the north – Camp Barney Medintz (Atlanta Jewish Community Center), Camp Coleman (Reform movement) and Camp Ramah Darom (Conservative movement). Like most rural southern areas, the small towns and villages in this area of Georgia typically had no more than four Jewish families. Word slowly spread through the area about the Friday night dinners and the group began to grow. An ad placed in the Jewish Times of Atlanta created a surge in interest.
By 2001 the group had grown to a point where the use of individual homes became problematic, and a larger, more permanent site was needed. Shalom b’Harim began renting space with Dahlonega Presbyterian Church and conducted Friday night services once a month.
The original group of attendees was eclectic: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and others attended. Other participants were not residents of north Georgia, but people who lived in Atlanta and South Georgia. Additionally, Floridians who had weekend cabins or vacation homes in the area participated. The services were conducted by our congregants, with no dedicated spiritual leader. This group called itself “Shalom North Georgia”.
By 2002 there was interest in finding a spiritual leader. Mitch Cohen, a “para-rabbi” in the Reform movement, was contracted to conduct services (Mitch’s day job was selling environmental insurance). He traveled to Dahlonega once a month with his wife Suzette, a noted Jewish educator, to lead Friday night services. Mitch was later ordained and Rabbi Mitch was Shalom b’Harim’s spiritual leader for 17 years. Saturday morning services were added to the annual schedule to accommodate those who could not travel at night through the mountains. Passover and High Holiday services were conducted in the Strauss outdoor chapel at Camp Coleman, in Cleveland, Georgia.
Several Bar and Bat Mitzvahs have been conducted and, on occasion, there have been shiva minyans for the bereaved. At one point, a family donated a Torah1 to us which is still in service. We are fortunate that our participants and guests are generous since we do not have a dues structure. We do not own a building, so our expenses are limited. In 2003-2004, it became obvious that a formal organizational structure with a functioning board, officers, and committees was needed. In 2004 Shalom b’Harim was registered as a non-profit corporation under the laws of the State of Georgia and as a 501(c) (3) entity for the purpose of receiving charitable gifts. We officially became Shalom b’Harim (Peace in the Mountains).
We are inclusive, not exclusive. There are no charges for any of our services although if we have a meal or breakfast, we do ask for reimbursement at cost. No one is excluded for inability to pay. Early on a Sunshine Fund was established to cover those situations and arrangements are kept private.
During 2017-2018, it was recognized that the congregation’s demographics were shifting from Dahlonega towards Gainesville. Gainesville was the obvious site since it is rapidly becoming more of a metropolitan area. Since 2019, we have rented space from Unity Church in Gainesville.
In addition, Gainesville offers us an expanding population, with Jews moving to our area – many of whom are moving to be closer to their children and grandchildren in the Atlanta area. Rabbi Mitch retired from the pulpit in 2019 and Shalom b’Harim contracted with Rabbi Steve Lebow to be our spiritual leader. Rabbi Lebow retired after 34 years as the Rabbi for Temple Kol Emeth in Atlanta. We are fortunate to have a Rabbi of his caliber. The good Rabbi serves three separate small congregations in North Georgia.
With the changes in location our congregational attendance has increased by approximately 40%.
1According to Rabbi Mordechai Danneman, the certified scribe who did some repair work to the Torah, the scroll probably originated in Europe and found its way to Palestine, the district of Holon in greater Tel Aviv, right after World War 1, when a large-scale housing settlement for workers of the Histadrut, or the General Organization of Workers, existed there. (This dates the scroll to be 100 years plus. From there it was most likely purchased by the donor family, Jerome and Rona Shapiro.