A New Lease on Jewish Life: Kol Tzedek Finds a New Home

The new Kol Tzedek under construction. Courtesy of Kol Tzedek

Leslie Feldman

It’s been years in the making: Kol Tzedek, the Reconstructionist community at Calvary United Methodist Church in West Philadelphia, is moving into its new space at WADE Flats, 5300 Whitby Ave., on April 1.

The first service there will be on April 5 or 6.

What began in the apartment of founder Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermann in 2002 has grown into a Reconstructionist community with more than 350 households. About 90% of those congregants live in Philadelphia, and around 60% walk to the shul.

Time for a new home
“During the last shmita year, Kol Tzedek engaged in a strategic planning process. We identified as a top priority moving into an ADA-accessible home in our neighborhood with heating, cooling and ventilation,” Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari said. “While we have loved being part of Calvary, it was not accessible to many members of our community.”

The rabbi explained that for the last 19 years, the synagogue has used an urban campus model for synagogue life, where its programs happen in many different spaces. This has created a strain on staff and volunteer energy.

“We wanted to bring as many programs and events under one roof as possible. We were thrilled when we found space at WADE Flats,” Fornari said. “After years of planning and searching, it uniquely met our three requirements of being accessible, with HVAC in the Cedar Park neighborhood.”

The future home of Kol Tzedek. Courtesy of Kol Tzedek

Naomi Segal, a founding member of the synagogue, believes members are grateful for their long and successful partnership with the church, but that it’s time for a new home.
“Kol Tzedek needs wheelchair accessibility, heating in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, proper ventilation and bathrooms that work on a consistent basis,” she said.

Congregants wanted to be immersed in the neighborhood. As Segal explained, “We want a space we can share with the community. We’re conscious of our role in gentrification in West Philly and want to make sure we’re not going to do something that will drive them out.”

Funding the move
To help with the costs associated with the move, Kol Tzedek leaders asked members to donate in the symbolic multiple of 18. The campaign raised $360,000. That was enough to rent the building’s entire first floor, which was fit out specifically for the synagogue’s use.

The move would not have been possible without the support of its congregants and the dozens of members who devoted time and energy to the project.

“A lot of planning went into this initiative, from identifying priorities, looking at spaces, negotiating a lease, working with architects, getting community input, and planning, budgeting and designing the space,” Fornari said. “It has been an enormous undertaking that has echoed the length and details of the building of the mishkan in Exodus.”

A perfect environment for worship
“Because of our ability to design it from the ground up, we have been able to customize every aspect of the new space to our needs, from comfortable chairs, to ritual spaces, to paint colors,” founding member Andrew Zitcer said. “In 20 years, we have never had the ability to be fully in control of how Kol Tzedek looks and feels. This new space will fit us perfectly.”

“For at least five years, numerous committees and individuals at Kol Tzedek searched for a new space that could meet our needs and now we will have it. We can bring almost all of our activities and soon our office into one location,” Segal added. “There are places for kids and adults who need a quiet space during services. It’s ADA-accessible and includes full air filtration. It’s easy to get to, with just a five-minute walk from the 34 trolley; the 52 bus comes right to us, plus usually lots of on-street parking.”

A new beginning
Zitcer looks forward to what’s ahead for the congregation.

“In addition to controlling and scheduling our own space, we will have the ability to host virtually all of our programming, education, office space and worship in one place, as opposed to scattered throughout the neighborhood,” he said. “This move also gives us a chance to get to know our new neighbors and build meaningful relationships, as well as offer our space to community partners whose missions align with Kol Tzedek.”

Segal added, “We can schedule extensive programming because we control the space, not others. We intend to reach out to our surrounding Kingsessing community, be good neighbors, offer rental spaces and work together towards a more just Philadelphia.”

Leslie Feldman is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.


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