Three Generations Uncover their Jewish Southern Roots. Part 3: Atlanta

OrVehalom exterior

Or VeShalom, Atlanta Georgia. Established 1906.

Ruben Owen with his two sons, Jacob and Rabbi Benjy Owen along with grandson Jeffrey toured the deep South this past December, uncovering their Jewish Sephardic roots along the way.

Part three of a five part series: The four Owens drove the 249 miles from Savannah to Atlanta, arriving at their Atlanta hotel Sunday evening, December 28th. A satisfying but emotionally draining excursion such as this required a little bit of unwinding. The Owens made their way to a unique Kosher South American grill restaurant in nearby Sandy Springs called Fuego Mundo where they met up with Ruben’s niece Lisa and two childhood friends. It was a fantastic dinner and Sangria wine (2 pitchers!)” recalled Ruben. With all the sharing of memories, catching up and Sangria, the family did not want to leave, “we closed the place down” laughed Ruben. “Actually they officially close at 9 pm but stayed open till 9:30 for us”.

Despite the Sangria, the Owens arose bright and early on Monday morning and headed to their first stop of the day,  Congregation Or VeShalom – where the Owens made minyan. Fifteen year old Jeffrey was invited to lead the tefila, which he expertly did according to the Rhodesli tradition in which he had been trained and brought up. “I really felt at home at Or VeShalom, they even used our Seattle Sephardic Siddur” recalled Jeffrey. OVS as locals refer to the congregation uses the Seattle Sephardic Siddur; Zehut Yosef. Hazzan Isaac Azose of Seattle’s Congregation Ezra Bessaroth published Zehut Yosef back in 2000 as a labor of love designed to preserve the unique Rhodesli and Turkish traditions particular to Seattle’s two Sephardic Congregation. 

Or VeShalom, Atlanta Georgia. Established 1906.

Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla (left) with Jacob Owen in the beautiful Or VeShalom Sanctuary.

Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla, the spiritual leader of Or VeShalom kindly hosted the Owens for breakfast where he shared with them the history of his congregation. Just as in Seattle, a surge of immigrants from the Greek Island of Rhodes and Turkey settled in Atlanta around the turn of the last century. While Seattle’s two Sephardic congregations, Sephardic Bikur Holim (Turkish) and Ezra Bessaroth (Rhodes/Greek) maintained their separate institutions over the years, such was not the case in Atlanta.  As noted in the American Jewish Archive “Initially the Greeks and Turks refused to cooperate with each other and by 1910 there were two Sephardic congregations in the city, Or Hahayim, which catered to the Turkish and Ahavath Shalom, which attracted the Greeks. The two Sephardic Synagogues of Atlanta struggled financially and ultimately by necessity they merged in 1914, forming Or VeShalom. 

Wrestling with the challenges of modernity, the congregation struck a compromise, instituting mixed seating but retaining other accoutrements of Sephardic tradition, for example the congregation only calls men up to the Torah. Although Or VeShalom abandoned gender separate seating decades ago, this decision is far from settled. Rabbi Kassorla has urged a return to separate seating (as did prior spiritual leaders such as Rabbi Beton in the 1960’s) and the congregation’s members and leadership continue to debate whether or not such a move might re-energize the kehila. 

Burekas are a popular item at the Or VeShalom annual Bazaar.

Burekas are still a popular item at the Or VeShalom annual Bazaar.

While the founders of Or Veshalom were mostly Rhodesli, descendents of these pioneers make up only 10 to 15% of the congregation today. About half of the congregation claim Sephardic heritage, many of Syrian and Bukharian origin, the remaining members are Ashkenazic.”Interestingly” recalled Rabbi Owen, “Rabbi Kassorla felt that source of  the Seattle Sephardic community’s continued strength and vibrancy comes from the competition inherent in having two Sephardic Congregations. 

In addition to the shared liturgy, there remain other parallels between the Seattle and Atlanta Sephardic communities. This includes a Sephardic Burial society, an active sisterhood (that similarly loves Mah Jongg) and even an annual Bazaar featuring Sephardic delicacies such as burekas, pastelis and yaprakes. “In many ways Or VeShalom reminded us of home, the family names, the liturgy, the culture all felt familiar” observed Rabbi Owen.

Sephardic pride T-Shirts for sale at the Or VeShalom annual Bazaar.

Sephardic pride T-Shirts for sale at the Or VeShalom annual Bazaar.

By early afternoon the group departed Atlanta for their next stop, Columbus, GA, Ruben’s boyhood home. As the family drove down the tree lined streets of this elegant southern town, Ruben’s head flooded with childhood memories. Rabbi Owen parked their rental car down the block from the modest single level home where his father had been raised. It had been years, even decades since Ruben had walked this sidewalk towards his home. Glancing down the street Ruben was relieved that the stately Pecan trees still offered shade across both sides of the quiet road. 

Ruben's childhood home in Columbus, GA looked much as it did six decades ago.

Ruben’s childhood home in Columbus, GA looked much as it did six decades ago.

The empty lot where Ruben would play with the neighbor kids during the humid, hot Columbus summer afternoons was gone, replaced by a simple 3 bedroom rambler similar to his own. But the home where a young Ruben Owen was raised by Ben and Beulah Owen still stood, looking much as it did six decades ago. Ruben stood for a while with his sons and grandson in front of the old house. He could almost see his parents there, sitting on the porch, his mother calling towards the old lot for him to come home for dinner. 

There was still one piece of unfinished business. In her later years, Ruben’s mother, by then a widow, needed assistance. A local gentleman by the name of Madison Parkman filled that role, taking gentle care of Beulah Owen until her final days. “Mr. Parkman took such good care of her and they got along incredibly well”. Ruben found Mr. Parkman at his home, not far away. “I thanked him for taking such good care of my mother” said Ruben. “It was emotional, and very special”.

Ruben asked Mr, Parkman, “after my mother passed, the house sat empty for quite a long time. Other empty houses were trashed, their windows busted up by neighborhood kids, but nobody touched mom’s house, why?”. “They wouldn’t dare” replied Mr. Parkman “they knew that if they touched Mrs. Owen’s home they would have to answer for it to me!”. Well that explains it, thought Ruben.