By Jody Steinberg
On Christmas Eve, Rabbi Mario Karpuj stood outside a Sandy Springs church and prepared to join members of Congregation Or Hadash as they made sandwiches for homeless men.
Volunteers from his congregation planned to spend the night in the shelter, but this time, Rabbi Karpuj could not join them. No room.
“I’ve been left out because there is such an abundance of volunteers,” he said with a hint of pride for his congregation, which had chosen that night to work at the shelter so Christian volunteers and staff could be with their families. “They only need six, but 10 members volunteered.”
A commitment to social justice is a hallmark of Or Hadash, which translates as “new light.” The Sandy Springs congregation works closely with neighboring churches to serve homeless and working poor people in the area.
The popular synagogue is so entrenched in the community that it’s easy to forget that it’s only 6½ years old.
Or Hadash has the rich programming and community closeness of a congregation that’s been around for decades. Members attribute the synagogue’s success to the two charismatic rabbis who lead it with warmth, humility and a musical Latino spirit.
Married rabbis Mario Karpuj and his wife, Dr. Analia Bortz, arrived in Atlanta with their daughters to serve at another synagogue.
When word got around that the Argentine couple might move on, community members seized the opportunity to keep their beloved rabbis in Atlanta by forming a new synagogue. Talks began in December 2002 and by the following March, Congregation Or Hadash was established.
More than 300 people attended the first Sabbath service that summer. Today, 350 households call Or Hadash, a Conservative synagogue, their spiritual home. Active involvement by members rivals much larger congregations.
“Our congregation is a family we choose every day,” Bortz said. “We started this journey together, and it’s absolutely wonderful so far. This is our home.”
The rabbis’ nurturing influence on the community is as distinctive as a fingerprint. But they are quick to deflect the praise.
“It’s not all about us,” Karpuj said. “It’s about the space created for everyone to express themselves and become part of the community. We try to be democratic so everyone has a voice. When we discuss Torah, anyone can raise their hand and make a comment or ask a question.”
“It’s a very interactive community,” agrees Dr. Gabriella Siegel, who lauds the rabbis’ style. “They treat everyone as equals and don’t talk down to [anyone].” Siegel and her husband, Morris Benveniste, live in northeast Atlanta, but don’t mind the drive to Or Hadash, whose sanctuary and offices are located in The Weber School at Roswell and Abernathy roads.
“The rabbis are amazing,” says founding member and current president, Sherry Frank. “They have congregants over every Shabbat, a different group every night for Chanukah – they’re always doing something in their home for the members.”
“We try to live by example, to inspire people to a particular way of living so people feel that everything they do they can do from a Jewish perspective,” Karpuj said. “People make this community their own in a very real way and create connections among themselves. They are there for each other, to help when they need it – to cook, visit, support, or to celebrate.”
Bortz said that after 17 years of marriage, she and her husband know how to work well together.
“We don’t have jobs, we have vocations,” she said. “And when you use that approach, it becomes very beautiful. Stress is left behind, and we look forward to our next program, mitzvah, wedding … We complement each other and learn from each other.”
Family therapist and Brookhaven resident David Woodsfellow appreciates the rabbis’ differing perspectives. He hosts a weekly group at his Buckhead office. Each year, one of the rabbis leads the group, bringing his or her perspective to the study.
“Two rabbis, five books of the Torah – it’s always fresh,” he said. “Delving into the text is really interesting – the rabbis make it worthwhile.”