Jewish center raising money to build permanent home

About 10,000 Jewish people live in Gwinnett County, but most of them don't know each other at all.

Rabbi Yossi Lerman wants his Jewish community center, the Chabad Enrichment Center, to change that trend. He'd like to see Gwinnett Jews develop a community, similar to those already found in Sandy Springs and Toco Hills, of their own.

"Right now, it's very hard to find other Jewish families in Gwinnett. And a lot of people, if they want an active Jewish community, they'll leave Gwinnett," said Hoschton resident Jodie Cohen. "We're trying to say we have what we need right here."

A Sunday fundraiser at the Payne-Corley House in Duluth will help raise the money needed to build a permanent home for the center. Lerman sees a permanent center as the first step to establishing a strong Jewish community in Gwinnett. He figures that if the county can nurture a Korean community and a Hispanic community, why not a Jewish community?

For Lerman and many others living in Gwinnett, the desire for a stable community center is part of a move to return to the strong communities created by first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants. They'd like to see synagogues and kosher restaurants within walking distance of home. They'd like to see huge gatherings of families and friends during the holidays.

"It's what my mom and grandparents had growing up," said Peachtree Corners resident Brad Johns. "They had a tight-knit Jewish community that revolved closely around the synagogue ... there's a strong movement among my generation and our kids toward thinking 'Hey, our parents and grandparents really had something we need to capture."

The Chabad center started out small and has grown slowly, family by family, Johns said. The group of families comes together to celebrate on holidays and worship together on the Sabbath. Lately, they've grown even closer, and have started coming together to celebrate life's joys - weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs - as well as support each other during the sorrows of illness and death.

Right now, the Chabad center rents space in an office complex on Holcomb Bridge Road in Norcross. It offers synagogue services on weekends, and some classes for children and adults. The center can accommodate up to 50 children in Sunday Hebrew classes, Lerman said.

During the high holy days - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - the Chabad Enrichment Center had to rent space at a hotel to accommodate the number of families who wanted to attend.

In a permanent building, the Chabad center could have a full kitchen where members could prepare kosher meals for the holidays or for bar and bat mitzvahs. Even more, it would better fit people's notions of what a synagogue should look and feel like, Johns said.

Eventually, Lerman would like to see a community directory to help Gwinnettian Jews find each other.

Cohen moved to Hoschton from New Jersey, and she said she never realized how strong the Jewish community was there until she moved away. Many of the Jews living in Gwinnett moved here from bigger cities where they didn't feel so out of place, Cohen said. And it's a little harder to carry on the day-to-day requirements of Judaism in the South, where Christianity is pervasive.

Small battles, like having to drive 35 miles to find kosher meat and fish, or running into teachers who don't see a problem with reading a Christian book during storytime at a public school, add up quickly. It's easier to deal with the small concerns when you have a support system of people who understand where you're coming from, she said.

"There's not really an understanding of who we are here. It makes it a little difficult to be here in the South," Cohen said. "When you can find people who are respectful of who you are, and who understand who you are, it makes it easier."

Johns emphasized that though Rabbi Lerman is an Orthodox Jew, which means he follows the strictest Jewish lifestyle, the Chabad center is welcoming of Jews from any background. The established members don't pressure new families to change or take on more Orthodox traditions.

Whether a family wants to enroll their children in Hebrew classes or wants to learn how to properly celebrate Passover, the center can help, Johns said.

And although it may take years, even decades, Lerman said he'd like to see a synagogue within a 10-minute drive of any family in Gwinnett. He'd like to see a good selection of kosher restaurants, as well as a big selection of kosher foods at the local grocery stores. In short, a place Jews can call home.

"I hope to one day announce after our building is complete: 'Hey, Dunwoody is all filled up, Alpharetta is filled, too. Come to Gwinnett," Lerman said.

n What: "Mission Possible," a fundraising auction for the Chabad Enrichment Center of Gwinnett County

•When: 6 p.m. Sunday

•Where: Payne-Corley House, 2987 Main St. in Duluth

•Cost: $36, which includes $36 in auction tickets which can be used to bid on items ranging from Airtran airline tickets to a $4,000 tennis bracelet.

•Info: www.chabaden