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It Takes More Than a Kehillah

August 19, 2010 By:
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Sisters Samantha and Sarah Markham party at a May Lag B'Omer festival in Northern Liberties, sponsored by the Kehillah of Center City. Photo by Greg Bezanis

The Kehillot, the seven community-building entities throughout the region that stage Jewish festivals, adult learning sessions, soccer leagues, children's storytelling and Israeli Independence Day events, is about to come under new management.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which created and for years ran the network, is turning over the program to the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/ Jewish Outreach Partnership, effective Sept. 1.

Federation has agreed to continue to fund the Kehillot to the tune of about $1 million, which Federation officials said is slightly less than its allocations in recent years.

At the same time, ACAJE/JOP has agreed to oversee the program and take on seven Federation staff members as employees.

The formal agreement covers a three-year period -- with the possibility that funding could go on longer -- and sets a number of benchmarks aimed at sparking greater interest in Jewish life among individuals and families at the periphery.

It remains an open question as to whether this move will bolster the Kehillot (which means "communities" in Hebrew), but many are hoping that they can play an expanded role in promoting Jewish identity and engaging interfaith and unaffiliated families.

Although many in the community are not aware of the Kehillot structure per se, collectively they have touched area residents in myriad ways.

For Federation, divesting itself of the management of the Kehillot is the latest sign that the city's central Jewish fundraising agency is distancing itself from directly running programs. Instead, say officials, it is focusing on its core mission of fundraising and setting communal priorities.

In a July 22 letter to the roughly 300 volunteers affiliated with the Kehillot, Federation president Leonard Barrack and CEO Ira M. Schwartz wrote that, "with increased capacity to reach out to the community, we anticipate that this systematic approach will address interfaith and marginal affiliation issues that were identified in the recent population study and will position Federation and ACAJE/ JOP to better address continually unfolding dynamics" within the Jewish community.

For its part, ACAJE/JOP -- the two organizations that merged a year ago and are expected to adopt a new name soon -- is touting its focus on strengthening synagogues and formal and informal education, as a natural fit for the Kehillot.

Indeed, for a time earlier in the decade, JOP actually ran the Kehillot of Lower Merion and Old York Road on behalf of Federation.

The group has already hired a director to oversee the Kehillot personnel.

In the past, each Kehillah, which is run by staff and volunteers, has performed a wide array of functions, from programming "public space" events like "Pajamarama" -- aimed at attracting the unaffiliated -- to bolstering cooperation among synagogues by gathering lay leaders and rabbis for regular meetings.

Several of the Kehillot have planned upcoming community-wide Selichot services for Sept. 4.

The "Taste of Judaism" series, in which synagogue rabbis offer free classes on the basics of the religion, is a signature Kehillot program.

The Kehillah boards have historically been able to allocate limited funds to specific synagogue projects. For example, Congregation Mikveh Israel recently got some funding to put on a Sephardic Film Festival. Under the agreement, the grants are expected to continue.

The breakdown of the Kehillot -- which will initially remain the same but, according to officials, will be re-evaluated within the first year -- are: Bux-Mont, Bucks, Old York Road, Lower Merion, Chester, Delaware and Center City.

Although the Kehillot activities won't look all that different at first, ACAJE/JOP expects to put its own stamp on the various programs after a full evaluation, according to Rabbi Philip Warmflash, the group's executive director.

"What we're hoping will change is that we'll have a smoother, more integrated system for community building, for engagement, for the work that the community needs in terms of Jewish education and identity," said Warmflash.

The first Kehillah was established in Bux-Mont in the mid-1990s. Originally named Yachad, it was meant to address communal concerns that, in a sprawling suburban environment with more Jewish mobility, there was limited coordination among the synagogues and little sense of a broader Jewish community.

Soon replicated by other regions, the Bux-Mont Kehillah was viewed as successfully strengthening synagogues and community while also raising Federation's profile and fundraising reach.

Over the years, the focus of the Kehillot expanded beyond synagogues as they tried to zero in on unaffiliated families by pioneering programs in public spaces, which are thought to be more inviting and less threatening for the disconnected than synagogue events.

But in recent years, as Federation has cut staff in order to deal with an increasingly difficult fiscal reality, many wondered whether the Kehillah program would be phased out.

Hershel Richman, a Mount Airy resident who co-chairs the Federation Kehillot committee, said that in recent times, the Kehillot had lacked oversight and structure and, in a sense, had been orphaned.

"There was not clear guidance and oversight as to what everybody was doing. There was no expectations that had been established to measure whether they had been successful or not," said Richman.

"There was great potential that had to be realized."

Federation officials said the deal with ACAJE/JOP represents a significant commitment for a resource-stretched fundraising organization that recently saw a 14 percent drop in its allocable dollars.

They also said they view the Kehillot as being best positioned to respond to some of the findings of the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia."

Among the survey's findings was that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.

Although fundraising will no longer be part of the Kehillot directors' responsibilities, they will still be expected to recruit volunteers for the annual Super Sunday phone drive.

And, in the hopes that the Kehillot can still create awareness about Federation, all program materials are supposed to say that they are taking place in partnership with the Federation.

A number of Kehillot volunteers and synagogue leaders said they were cautiously optimistic about the change.

Rabbi Adam Wohlberg of Temple Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Dresher, spent three years as chair of the Bux-Mont Kehillah's rabbinic committee and helped plan two Kehillah-sponsored missions to Israel.

Wohlberg said that, prior to its merger, JOP had worked closely with the Kehillah to foster discussions among the leaders of various synagogues.

"I'm really uncertain about what the change will look like. But because I have great faith in the ACAJE/JOP, I really believe that it will help the Kehillah in creating new kinds of programs that will reach out beyond the synagogues," said Wohlberg.

Arthur Spector, president of Kehilat Hanahar, The Little Shul by the River, a 16-year-old Reconstructionist congregation in New Hope, said that neither his synagogue's members nor leaders have gotten very involved in the Kehillah. Most of the other Bucks County synagogues involved are a 20-30 minute drive from New Hope.

"We have so many things we want to do in our community and challenges getting there," Spector said, adding that synagogue volunteers have been overwhelmed with congregational work and haven't had time to get involved in the larger community.

"I'm not trying to be an isolationist or short-sighted," said Spector.

Still, Spector said that if the Kehillah of Bucks County has "the resources and can offer programs and be able to network with and be able to link up with what we're doing," its efforts would be welcome. 

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