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Southern roots run deep for 30-year New Jersey resident

The 3- 4-year-old B’nai B’rith Jacob kindergarten class of 1951. Of the 28 kids in the class, 14 came to the 65th birthday party.

We came to Savannah, Ga., from near and far last month to celebrate our coming of age. No, we were not welcoming our entrance into adulthood at age 13 at b’nai mitzvah, or age 21 to drink legally —we were celebrating the arrival of our Medicare cards, at age 65.

We all grew up in a very small Savannah Jewish community, where we spent most of our time in JEA Canteens (Jewish Educational Alliance, the JCC of Savannah) and in our synagogue youth groups, YOU at B’nai B’rith Jacob Synagogue, USY at the Agudath Achim Synagogue, and TYG at Temple Mickve Israel (which holds the oldest Torah scrolls in the United States). We started in kindergarten together, moved on to first and second grade at the Hebrew day school, and then attended public school, high school and college. We went to all the bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, and celebrations. (There were no bat mitzvahs at the time we were growing up. I was allowed to do one or two prayers in front of the bimah, at a lower level, and that was it. It was the 1950s and women were relegated to a different role than we have now.)

We knew each other’s families — grandparents, mothers, dads, sisters, brothers. We lived in each other’s lives. It was a wonderful, nurturing environment, and while we may not always have gotten along, we loved each other. We became a family.

And so it was not surprising that so many of us traveled from New Jersey, New York, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina to see one another at this time in our lives. It was quite a reunion for everyone, who had last joined as a group for our 50th birthday and before that, our 40th birthday. But what is amazing is that everyone has kept in touch after all these years.

“There is definitely a bond with Savannah and all the kids we grew up with,” said Ellen Schneider Goodrich, who drove in from Milledgeville, Ga. The weekend events were planned by Savannah residents, who kindly shared their homes at Tybee, Savannah Beach, for the reunion. We ate hush puppies, boiled peanuts, grits, kosher Krispy Kremes, and fried chicken with Johnny Harris Barbeque sauce (which just recently received kosher certification).

“What better way to celebrate our return to Savannah than to spend it at the beach?,” said Sydney Solomon Ratnow, who flew in from Suffern, N.Y., with her husband, Steve. Sydney met Steve through her Savannah friends who were at Emory in 1962. There were at least five couples who grew up together in Savannah and are now married. But most people came from outside of Savannah. Texan attorney Arthur Geffen called his photos of the group “AKs from Savannah.”

Of the six kids in my second-grade Hebrew day school class, four of us were at the party.

It is difficult to explain to my New Jersey friends what it was like growing up in Savannah being Jewish. Most people don’t understand. There is a special connection we feel. It’s a real homecoming, and even though we may not see one another for years, we reconnect as though it were yesterday. It is a tribute to the Jewish community of Savannah that we have bonded and stayed in touch in such an extraordinary way over all these years.

Plans for the 70th birthday celebration are already floating around Facebook.

A group of former classmates gather at the June 11 reunion in Savannah. Simone Wilker is in the front row, far right.
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