Letter From DahlonegaA Ku Klux Klan banner shocks a small town—and brings back memories of deeply rooted prejudices.
The third in Moment’s “Our Nation” 2017 series exploring the American Jewish experience.
As far as Gary Jacobs* knows, he is the only Jew in his unincorporated community of fewer than 20 people near Georgia’s Tallulah River. This northeastern Georgia region is an area where expressions such as “Jew ’em down” are casually bandied about, and the nearby Jewish sleepaway camp, Ramah Darom, is referred to as “that Jew camp” or even, improbably, “Camp Ramadan.” “They don’t like outsiders,” says Jacobs, a high school teacher in his 50s, who asked us not to use his real name. “They’re very religious, at least they claim to be, and, not placing fault on anybody, but they don’t understand what being a non-Christian means.”
So once a month Jacobs drives 56 miles southwest to Dahlonega (Duh-LAWN-uh-ga), a town of about 6,000 nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, for Friday night services at Shalom B’Harim. Shalom B’Harim is a small nondenominational congregation serving the handful of Jews scattered throughout the mountains of North Georgia and some who work at or attend the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. There are 3,500 Jews in the 20 northernmost counties in Georgia, comprising just 0.41 percent of the total population, according to the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University. Shalom B’Harim, which literally means Peace in the Mountains, serves as a haven for some of these isolated Jews. “I’m not very observant at all. I’m culturally Jewish,” says Jacobs. “But at the same time, I need an outlet.”
The congregation started as informal monthly Shabbat dinners in 2001, when two area Jewish mothers decided to create a Jewish environment for their children closer than Atlanta, more than 70 miles away, where about 92 percent of Georgia’s Jews live. Now, 16 years later, Shalom B’Harim has about 70 members, a space in the Dahlonega Presbyterian Church, a part-time rabbi and a Torah, complete with a handcrafted traveling case built by Stanley Applebaum, the president of the board.
Dahlonega came to brief national attention this year on February 16, when a sign suddenly appeared on a building in the center of town displaying a white hooded figure with a raised fist and the words “Historic Ku Klux Klan meeting hall,” accompanied by Confederate and Ku Klux Klan flags. The shocking sight led to immediate protest in front of the building. “The reaction to that banner, in my opinion, was a gut instinct by people that the town should be proud of,” says Matt Aiken, publisher of the local newspaper The Dahlonega Nugget. “The banner went up and people were pulling U-turns.”
Aiken estimates that 30 to 40 people attended an impromptu demonstration that morning, and more than 200 attended the more formal one organized the next day. The sign itself, which violated building codes, was soon removed, but the city was initially unable to reach the building’s owner, Roberta Green-Garrett, who was in Florida at the time. “At one point I actually got through to her, and said, ‘Hey, uh, you got KKK flags on your building,’” says Aiken. “And she said, ‘Oh, okay,’ being kind of coy about it. And I said, ‘So, want me to tell the city that you said they can take ’em down?’ And she said, ‘I’m gonna need more information about it.’ I was like ‘Okay, more information: There’s a protest forming in the street in front of your building.’”
It turned out that Green-Garrett, 83, had the sign and flags put up as an attention-getting stunt to pressure the city into granting her approval to demolish a neighboring historic building so that she could build a hotel in its place. And while the sign—and flags—came down, the incident revealed the tensions that exist in a county that voted for Trump by a 78 percent margin, although Dahlonega itself is more liberal with a longstanding black neighborhood. “A certain number of people up here get nervous about White Aryans or skinheads,” says Applebaum, a native of Charleston who speaks with a lustrous drawl. There are 32 hate groups based in Georgia, including six chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, two neo-Confederate groups, two neo-Nazi groups, three racist skinhead groups, and two white nationalist groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Two Klan groups are located within 50 miles of Dahlonega, in East Ellijay and Canton. But while Applebaum knows anti-Semitism exists in the South, he doesn’t encounter much of it personally. “There are pockets out there, you don’t know where they are, and there are enough stories [to know] that you need to be a little cautious when you get into unknown territory.”
It was only six decades ago that the bombing of Georgia’s largest synagogue rocked the state’s Jewish community. On October 12, 1958, 50 sticks of dynamite exploded at the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, destroying the historic building’s school but, thankfully, killing or injuring no one. Years earlier, in 1915, Georgia was also the setting for the notorious Leo Frank case. Frank, a Jewish factory manager, was wrongfully accused of raping and killing a 13-year-old girl, and a former state senator turned newspaper publisher named Tom Watson whipped Atlanta into an anti-Semitic frenzy that resulted in Frank being lynched in his cell. “It was so bad that after the Frank trial people actually left Atlanta,” says Janice Rothschild Blumberg, whose family has lived in Georgia for many generations and whose husband was the rabbi of the temple that was bombed. “A lot of businesses boarded up for the time being, and men sent their wives and children out of town. There were people yelling ‘Kill the Jew, kill the Jew!’” Blumberg thinks the temple bombing of 1958 was a seminal moment. “That was the beginning of the end of that kind of anti-Semitism,” she says. “What they did that day blew a hole not just in the wall of the Temple, but in the wall of anti-Semitism” that had persisted since the Frank case.
Still, over the years, there have been other incidents of prejudice. In 2014, Shalom B’Harim and the Dahlonega Presbyterian Church joined the Daffodil Project, an Atlanta-based initiative to plant daffodil bulbs in memory of the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust. Jaap Groen, an Auschwitz survivor, was scheduled to speak at their event. “Somebody found out who our main speaker was, and called him up and said, ‘You will not speak.’ And basically threatened to kill him,” remembers Applebaum. “We sent out an email to all of our congregants about the threat, just to let them know, saying, ‘We will have security there, we will be cautious, but we are going on with this.’”
One of those congregants is Leslie Green, who belongs to an Atlanta-based Jewish motorcycle club called the Sabra Riders. The Sabra Riders, whose insignia is a winged Magen David, have more than 50 active members. (According to Green, “you don’t have to be Jewish to join, but you probably won’t get the jokes.”) “The whole group rode their motorcycles up to North Carolina to [the speaker’s] house, escorted him down here personally, walked him to the door,” says Applebaum. “And when it was all over with, they escorted him all the way back.”
Green himself says that even in his conservative circles, he rarely finds anti-Jewish sentiments. “Nobody is overtly anti-Semitic to me,” says Green, patting his holster. “They know I carry; and they’re not going to come onto me like that. Most of the people I hang with at the cigar shop, at the liquor store, all the good places, you know? They know I’m Jewish, and they support Israel. They’re friends of Israel. They’re my friends. And they don’t tolerate that stuff.”
Much more prevalent than overt anti-Semitism is ignorance. “We’re isolated here, in a very Christian environment. They’re kind people, but totally clueless about Jewish life and Jewish identity,” says Rosemary Levy Zumwalt, a retired anthropologist. Deborah Arnold, a retired lawyer, agrees. “There’s ignorance that exists in small towns everywhere, that I didn’t experience growing up in Pennsylvania,” adds Arnold. She is especially concerned that the election of Donald Trump has reinvigorated bigotry, particularly in the South. The number of hate groups has risen nationally over the last two years—the total number in 2016 was 917, up from 892 in 2015, according to SPLC. “I think that people feel emboldened, and that it’s okay to show nastiness and ugliness and prejudice.” But for now, the abiding sense at Shalom B’Harim is one of closeness within the community and harmony without. “What was nice about [the sign] was the concern that the community showed, even by people that would not have been affected,” says Arnold. “The people who came [to the protests] were not necessarily Jewish, were not necessarily black, were not necessarily Hispanic. But to see the people who showed up with signs saying ‘Not here,’ that was very heartening to me in this small little town.”
*Not his real name.