New Shul’s About Urban Living, Social Justice

Sitting outside at a crowded West Philadelphia cafe and taking sips from an iced coffee as trolley cars intermittently clattered by along Baltimore Avenue, student Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann could barely contain her enthusiasm for her adopted neighborhood – and its newest synagogue.

"It feels like a city, and you don't have to get in your car to go everywhere. There are restaurants and things to do within your neighborhood," explained Grabelle Herrmann, 29, originally from Cherry Hill, N.J. "But it also has trees and people have houses, so it feels like a small town."

Grabelle Herrmann, a sixth-year, married student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote joined forces with some other families in the area – many with young children and some who came as students of the nearby universities and never left – and this year established Kol Tzedek.

The congregation has taken shape over the past nine months; it has formed a board, written by-laws, decided on a name, and now, several weeks before its first High Holiday services, begun in earnest the process of seeking out more members.

It is also currently applying for membership in the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the congregational arm of the movement.

And it has opened the Kol Tzedek Torah School. For now, a single teacher will instruct students of different ages in one classroom.

"I'm excited by the possibility of people connecting to Judaism, connecting to their spirituality and connecting to a community that can help them have a more meaningful life," said Grabelle Herrmann, who expects to graduate next spring and lead the synagogue full-time.

Classes, as well as bimonthly services, are slated to take place at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, a towering church edifice on Baltimore Avenue and 48th Street. The location sits a block away from a string of Ethiopian restaurants and grocery stores specializing in African products.

Not Seeking a Building

Currently, the congregation is not seeking its own building. In fact, the high cost of a Torah scroll will prevent it from owning one for some time; for the next year or two, members plan to borrow a scroll from the rabbinical college.

West Philadelphia, once a wellspring of Jewish life, experienced a slow decline over several decades as Jews relocated to outlying suburban communities. But the roughly 30 members of Kol Tzedek believe the establishment of their congregation – which was officially incorporated in May – is proof of the resurgent Jewish community west of 40th Street.

"People come up to me and say, 'You're the synagogue president! That doesn't quite click," said 25-year-old Noga Newberg, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, who added that the synagogue is making particular efforts to reach out to Jews interested in social justice and committed to an urban lifestyle.

Added Newberg: "We really want to push the boundaries of what Jewish community looks and sounds like."



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