At the age of 23, Rabbi David Marx arrived in Atlanta to take the reigns of The Temple. He was recently ordained, a proponent of Reform Judaism, and coming to a congregation largely divided between those who pushed for reforms and those who wished to adhere more strongly to tradition.
Over the previous two decades, The Temple had shifted back and forth between these two viewpoints. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism himself, had come to Atlanta in 1873 and convinced the congregation to dispense with the traditional second day of holy day observances. Four years later, when the congregation’s first formal worship space was dedicated, gender-segregrated seating had been replaced with mixed-gender seating and a musical instrument was introduced: the pipe organ.
In 1888, Rabbi Leo Reich took the pulpit of The Temple and turned the congregation in the opposite direction. He restored the second day of holy day observances and led the congregation’s withdrawal from the Union for Reform Judaism.* By 1895, the controversy surrounding his moves toward tradition led to his firing by a narrow majority of the congregation who supported the Reform movement.
It was into this community that Rabbi Marx stepped. His leadership, admist a divided a Jewish community and a potentially hostile gentile population, helped instill much needed stability to The Temple. While he delivered his first sermon from our pulpit at 23-years-old, he was 74 when he finally retired.
His 51-year tenure included two world wars, the lynching of a Temple member that traumatized American Jewry, and a struggle amongst American Jews over the question of whether to support Zionism. Over that time, he espoused strong classical Reform Jewish practices, began a long-standing tradition of Temple rabbis reaching out to the larger non-Jewish community, and argued against the Zionist movement.
Marx was involved in the founding of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in Atlanta as well as the Federation of Jewish Charities. He also was instrumental in encouraging a local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. Beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community, he worked closely with Christian clergy in order to secure support for free kindergartens in the state and laws mandating school attendance.
His efforts were critical in establishing his legacy as an educational reformer as well as preserving the security of the Jewish community at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant. That anti-Semitism was brought into stark relief in 1913, when a Temple member, Leo Frank, was accussed and convicted of the rape and murder of a thirteen-year-old girl. While evidence was extremely thin, attacks on Frank in the press took on an increasingly anti-Semitic tone.
When the governor of Georgia commuted Frank’s sentence, enraged Atlantan’s stormed the prison in which Frank was being held. He wsa taken to Marietta and hung from an oak tree. The lynch mob included notable members of the Atlanta business community and political leadership. Shortly thereafter, they revived the Ku Klux Klan atop Stone Mountain.
The events of the Frank case so alarmed Atlanta’s Jewish community, that many retreated from openly public roles. Two decades passed before any Jew ran for public office again, a marked shift from previous decades when Jews were visible in many local political roles. When Warner Bros. produced a movie on the lynching, Rabbi Marx and other Jewish leaders in Atlanta lobbied successfully to keep it from showing in Atlanta, so deep was their fear that to do so might inspire further anti-Semitic sentiment.
It is difficult to say how much of a role fear of anti-Jewish bigotry played in another aspect of Rabbi Marx’s legacy. In 1897, the first Zionist Congress was held in Switzerland. Afterwards, Rabbi Marx led The Temple to oppose Zionism, arguing it was incompatible with the desire of Jews to assimilate as Americans. His outspoken opposition was a major factor in the failure of Zionism to take hold in Atlanta during the first two decades of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the 1920s that a sustained and organized Zionism emerged here. Rabbi Marx, meanwhile, maintained his opposition throughout his tenure.
That tenure ended in 1946, with his retirement from the pulpit. The three rabbis of the three largest congregations in Atlanta at the time -- Marx, Tobias Geffen, and Harry Epstein -- had led their congregations for a combined 165 years. That stability, which began with Rabbi Marx in 1895, has been a hallmark of The Temple and Atlanta’s Jewish community into the present day.
*Please note, for all references to the official body of the Reform movement, this website refers to it as the Union for Reform Judaism. This is its current name, but prior to 2003, it was known as the Union for American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC).
1589 Peachtree Street NE | Atlanta, GA 30309 | t 404-873-1731 | A Reform Synagogue | Affiliated with The Union for Reform Judaism