Jewish Atlantans have seen a huge launch during the last two years in programming across all denominations of Judaism. This surge could be due in part to Federation’s 2006 survey that revealed a Jewish community of about 120,000 (up from 77,000 in 1996); or because religious educators, lay leaders and area Jews want more than traditional synagogue programming to fulfill their lives.
A program that has been around in Israel for a few years is being launched in Atlanta as one of a handful of "test" cities in the United States, including Cleveland, Stamford, Conn., and San Francisco.
Ayeka was rolled out to several metro-Atlanta Jewish organizations and synagogues in mid-September to rave reviews. At mid-size B’Nai Torah (Conservative) in Sandy Springs, some 40 people showed up on a Wednesday night to learn about the spiritual check-up program that was advertised in the synagogue bulletin. By the time the program launch was under way with a mini spiritual check-up with founder Aryeh Ben David, attendees were fixated. When the event concluded, people flocked to sign up for future discussions.
The program was founded in 2006 by Ben David after 20 years of teaching at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. The name means "where are you?" This name was given, according to Ben David, in an effort to get people thinking about where they are personally in their own spiritual journey – where they are in their relationship with God.
"Judaism is about more than information," Ben David said, "but where is God?" These questions and personal observations allowed Ben David to set up his spiritual checklist as a foundation for the program.
This method of studying and connecting is a model Ben David designed not only from his years of teaching experience, but also from his own struggles and questions. He said, "I didn’t have a paradigm or a role model. This is a completely different form of education."
Ben David’s arrival in Atlanta wasn’t by chance, but a well-planned tour finely tuned by local Ayeka enthusiasts, including Michael and Ann Karlin, Seth and Marci Cohen, Michael and Lisa Siegel, and Jacob Schreiber.
Some of the guys were part of a men’s retreat with Ben David at a lake house this year. A few of them said during an interview, they "were completely consumed in conversation, and never turned on the TV." Even with a bottle or two of booze, some games to play and other team-building distractions for break-time, Karlin said they never strayed from in-depth conversation and group discovery.
Karlin said he found Ben David in Israel’s Negev Desert during a July 2007 Wexner trip. This trip, and learning with Ben David, is where Karlin said he found his connection.
"I found it in the Negev … this scruffy rabbi with red hair," Karlin said. "This was how to bring God back into the equation of Judaism."
Now Karlin, Cohen and Schreiber are among the driving forces to bring others on board to institute Ayeka into their synagogues, organizations or independent groups.
The unique model of Ayeka includes: participants in groups of 8-10 people; trained facilitators who will act as moderators and rule keepers for sessions; and, eventually, people who want to give financially to grow the program. The unique part, according to Ben David, is that Ayeka is not a Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or any other denomination-specific program.
Karlin said, "This is to create small groups to help people connect more deeply to Judaism."