Rabbi Steven Lebow became the first full-time spiritual leader of Temple Kol Emeth when he moved to Marietta with Madeline in the summer of 1986.
At that time the temple office was a one room walk up in the early Merchant’s Walk area until TKE moved to the grounds of the new JCC on Post Oak Tritt.
Following the tradition of TKE as a “Big Tent” congregation Rabbi Lebow welcomed congregants of all different backgrounds, from interfaith couples, to life long Reform Jews, to members who had grown up in Conservative congregations who were looking for a Reform congregation open to traditional practices.
At the conclusion of Rabbi Lebow’s first year he “shepherded” TKE to become a formal member of the UAHC/Union of Reform Judaism, in the summer of 1987.
During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Rabbi Lebow concentrated on managing Kol Emeth’s rapid growth from the smallest Atlanta Jewish congregation to it’s fast-growing synagogue. During his first five years in Marietta land was bought and the first of Kol Emeth’s buildings were built.
In 1993 Rabbi and Madeline served on the original steering committee of The Davis Academy and their daughter Shira (now 26) became the first kindergartner ever enrolled at The Davis Academy.
In 1994, two year before the Olympics came to Atlanta, the Cobb County Commissioners passed their famous “Anti-Gay Proclamation”, announcing that gays and lesbians were antithetical to the “health, safety and welfare of Cobb County”. At Madeline’s encouragement Rabbi Lebow approached his fellow clergy in Cobb to promote a statement that “Cobb County welcomes all its residents, irrespective of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, and gender.”
On the eve of the release of Rabbi Lebow’s plea for tolerance from the Cobb County Commisioners he received an anonymous phone call from a local clergyman.
“How many ministers did you get to sign your ‘pro-gay rights’ statement?” the minister asked Rabbi Lebow.
“About forty in all,” Rabbi Lebow responded.
“That’s nice,” said the minister. “Read the paper tomorrow. We’ll have four hundred ministers who will hold you up to ridicule in this community…”
The following day over 400 ministers signed a statement voicing support for the Cobb Anti-Gay stance, issuing a scathing attack of Rabbi Lebow as an opponent of “family values…”
The debate became even more acrimonious when a local church changed its sign to read “Jesus was Betrayed by Judas. (i.e. the Jews). And this week it happened again…”
An anti-gay rally followed in the Marietta Square, where local Klan and others carried signs saying “Than God for AIDS…”
Then Fulton County Commissioner Mitch Skandalikis further inflamed the community by announcing his plan to test all Olympic Athletes for HIV and to “ban those who are HIV Positive from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.”
A year of fitful negotiations followed, but the Cobb Commissioners refused to rescind the original motion. In January of 1995 Rabbi Lebow and others convinced the International Olympic Committee to strip Cobb County of all of its Olympic venues for the 1996 Summer games.
By the spring of 1995 the major business organizations in Cobb, from The Home Depot to the Chamber of Commerce, joined Rabbi Lebow in asking for a spirit of tolerance in the community.
In the summer of 1995 Rabbi Lebow, joined by fellow clergy and main-stream business leaders, called for a massive demonstration of support on the Marietta Square. Attended by several thousand protesters, it was the first Pro-Gay rights demonstration ever held in Cobb.
At that rally and for five years afterwards Rabbi Lebow was accompanied by a security detail whenever he spoke in public. Temple members had learned that the Rabbi and his family had had their lives repeatedly threatened and had quietly arranged for “body guards” for the young Rabbi.
The original anti-gay resolution was never formally rescinded, but in the spring of 1998 Rabbi Lebow was approached by a young lawyer. “If you give me your support,” the lawyer told him “I will run for the County Commission and change the tone of discourse in this town…”
“You have my absolute support, ” Rabbi Lebow told the young politician. That fall Sam Olens, the future Attorney General of Georgia, was elected County Commissioner and later Commission Chairman. During that and subsequent elections all of the original commissioners on the Cobb County Commission were replaced and the anti-gay resolution was quietly put to rest. Since the summer of 1995 no anti-gay legislation has ever been introduced to Atlanta.
For his leadership in Atlanta during the 1990’s the Rabbi was recognized by the Reform movement by recognizing him with its “Irving Fain Social Action Award”. Between 1996-1998 Rabbi Lebow received the “Award for Courage” from the Cobb Citizens Coalition, the “Social Justice Award” from the Metropolitan Churches of America, “The Martin Luther King Award for Social Courage” from Citizens and Clergy United and “Clergyman of the Year” from Creative Loafing magazine.
Although the original controversy ultimately died down Rabbi Lebow again stumbled into the limelight when a local church refused to allow him to speak at a local service honoring the graduates of Walton High School.
After several tense months Rabbi Lebow defused the tension by announcing his decision toamke peace with the minister who had slighted him and to begin building houses for Habitat for Humanity with the church who had originally opposed him. Since that time TKE has built more Habitat houses than any other synagogue in Atlanta.
Subsequent to that Rabbi Lebow was honored as the “Atlanta Clergyman of the Year” by the National Conference of Christians and Jews and in 2002 as “Humanitarian of the Year” by the State of Georgia Holocaust Commission.
In spite of his support for many Republican candidates Rabbi Lebow was honored by the Democratic Party of Cobb County in 2007 for his role in bringing a progressive approach to politics in the South.
Rabbi Lebow’s work and life have been chronicled in the New York Time and the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Denver Post, CNN and NPR. His role in bringing Judaism and progressive politics to Georgia has been profiled in a number of standard history works; “Dixie Rising” (Applebome, 1996), “How Individuality Became the New Conformity” (Nieddzvicki, 2006), “Marietta Revisted” (Kirby and Guarnieri, 2009), “American Reform Judaism” (Kaplan, 2003) and “Sunbelt Rising” (Nickerson and Dochuk, 2011).
His role in vindicating Leo Frank, falsely convicted in 1913 andwantonly murdered by a Marietta mob in 1915, has been featured in numerous national articles and in the books “Murder in the Peach State” (Jordan, 2000), “Screening A Lynching” (Bernstein, 2009) and “An Unauthorized Guide to the Klu Klux Klan” (Hockfield, 2010).
In the fall of 2012 Rabbi and Madeline purchased a home only a few blocks from the Frank lynching site and down the street from his 1995 Civil Rights rally. He now lives peacefully in the very heart of Old Marietta.
At the ago of 40 TKE expressed its support for Rabbi Lebow by extending a “life tenure” contract to him.
“I was honored that TKE wanted to promote this long term relationship with me,” says Rabbi Lebow. “Every day I realize how lucky I am. Most clergymen never get the chance to spend their entire professional careers in one congregation.”
Rabbi Lebow has turned the reigns of social action over to his colleague, Rabbi Erin Boxt, and he currently concentrates on spirituality and teaching three (sometimes four) Torah study classes a week.
Rabbi Lebow has been married for thirty years to Madeline Sable, a former psychotherapist and now realtor with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services in Atlanta. They are the proud parents of Shira-Rose Sable Lebow, an executive with the internet support company “Cater2me” and Julia Rena Sable Lebow, a student in the department of “Film and Television Writing” at Emerson College in Boston.
“Being the Rabbi of TKE for three decades has been the honor of my life,” he says. “But being the husband of Madeline and the father of Shira and Julia… those are things that mean the most to me.”
Rabbi Lebow continues to focus on growing and sustaining TKE into the next decade.