A constant presence at the bima of congregation Temple Kol Emeth will soon be retiring. After 34 years, Rabbi Steven Lebow, the spiritual leader of TKE, will step down in July of 2020.
“The genesis of what happened is that all of my friends retired,” Lebow said. “It made me sort of sit up and think, is that something that I want to do. I’ve been here 33 years. It’s been a great experience for me and, maybe at the age of 66, which is what I’ll be, that would be a good time for retirement. So for me, it simply felt right.”
When Lebow first arrived at Kol Emeth in 1986 from New Orleans, he was just a young rabbi, looking to make his way into a profession he describes as “the last generalist profession.”
“With rabbis, there is an expectation that you will be good with everything,” Lebow said. “You have to be good with little kids, you have to be good with teenagers, you should be good with older people.”
Lebow first heard about the start-up congregation beginning in Marietta “through the grapevine.” Lebow said his wife, Madeline, fell in love with the area and convinced him Marietta was the place for them.
“I thought what a great opportunity it would be as a young person to come and grow with it,” Lebow said. “(Since then), we’ve raised our children here. We have been involved in this community for over a quarter century.”
At its inception, the congregation itself was made up of a few dozen families and had no permanent place to call home. The group started out meeting at the Mount Zion United Methodist Church, then the Cobb County Jewish Community Center, and after that, the Catholic Church of the Transfiguration.
“We grew it from 40 families to over 400 families,” Lebow said. “(In the 1990s and early 2000s,) there was a tremendous number of younger families in east Cobb. We were one of the first synagogues that welcomed interfaith couples. That gave us a kind of niche and people were attracted to that.”
“My whole philosophy was the doors should be open wide, and that anybody who came from any kind of background ... would be embraced,” Lebow said. “I knew that I was going to be a fish out of water for several years, but I knew because of that that somebody had to fill that place. Almost from the very beginning, I knew that was something I was supposed to do was have a synagogue wide open.”
Throughout his 34 years, Lebow has challenged the status quo. He has stood for desegregation, interfaith couples and gay and lesbian rights.
“I was the first person in Atlanta to do same-sex ceremonies, so I was probably one of the first in the entire southeast United States,” Lebow said. “Being the first of seeing that same-sex couples needed to be accepted, I think that was one of the biggest legacies that I leave behind.”
Lebow’s said his wife persuaded him to get more involved in the local community, igniting a spark within him.
“I kind of fell into it,” Lebow said. “I didn’t think coming here (to Marietta) that I would be that active in social action, but sometimes, the times demand people to step up to the plate.”
During his Yom Kippur sermon on Oct. 9, Lebow mentioned four particular events during his tenure that came to define and cement his place in the Cobb County and greater Atlanta Jewish community.
In 1987, Lebow stood with others in the push to integrate Forsyth County, against those who desired to keep minorities outside the county’s borders.
Seven years later, Lebow again found himself at the head of social justice campaign, this time for the LGBTQ community. In the early 1990s, the Cobb County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution condemning the gay and lesbian community.
The resolution and its message had negative consequences. The International Olympic Committee stripped Cobb County’s right to host events for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
Lebow said after rallying public sentiment, new commissioners were elected and the resolution was dissolved.
“It was very well known nationally,” Lebow said. “In fact, I was threatened ... and others were threatened with physical violence because of our support of that movement, but nonetheless, it was still the right thing to do.”
Lebow’s third event mentioned came in 2001, when he had been invited to give the baccalaureate speech to Walton High School’s graduating class at Mount Bethel United Methodist Church. However, Lebow was banned by the church’s pastor at the time, the Rev. Randy Mickler. The speech itself subsequently moved to a neutral site.
The fourth is an ongoing advocacy. Lebow is hoping the state of Georgia will exonerate Leo Frank. Frank, a Jew, was convicted in 1913 of the murder of a young girl, but since then, new evidence has emerged that would help clear his name. Frank was lynched in Marietta in 1915.
“I was able to discover the spot where Leo Frank was actually murdered,” Lebow said. “It was at the corner of what is now Roswell Street and Frey’s Gin Mill. By identifying that spot, I began a series of memorial services. It was the first time in Atlanta history that Frank had memorial services in memory of him.”
At the end of his sermon, Lebow got a standing ovation at both the morning and afternoon services.
At this time, Kol Emeth is actively searching for the next rabbi of the congregation. Lebow said the new leader of TKE needs to possess fresh energy and ideas.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to transfer over that legacy to someone new,” Lebow said. “My dedication is to make sure that person slides into this slot seamlessly and that they are able to take the congregation to the next level.”
Lebow estimates he has conducted 1,700 b’nai mitzvah — coming of age ceremonies — and 1,200 weddings during his tenure.
“It’s a great honor to be somebody’s rabbi because what that means, and it’s the same thing as being someone’s minister, is that you are invited into somebody else’s life,” Lebow said. “You are there to represent either your church or your temple, you’re there to represent God, you’re there to represent the family and to bring meaning and orderliness to transitional events in people’s lives.”
So what’s next for the soon-to-be 66-year old? In the short term, Lebow said he intends to visit his kids, who live in Florida, California and Washington, D.C.
Longer term, Lebow is going to serve a small synagogue call Rodef Shalom in Rome and a congregation just starting in Blue Ridge, the first-ever synagogue in the mountain community. He will also continue performing weddings, funerals and other matters asked by the community.
Lebow says not to TKE should not worry, he will still be around the synagogue from time to time and does not plan on moving away.
“This is where I belong and these are my people,” Lebow said. “I will definitely be around to whatever degree people want me ..., so I will still be very much present.”