After spending a decade building up her Reconstructionist congregation in West Philly, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann will move on to a new post in New York.
Among a roomful of congregants at Kol Tzedek, debra kimmelman, who spells her name with a lower case “d” and “k,” was reflecting on the legacy of Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, who will soon be leaving the Reconstructionist synagogue she founded a decade ago.
“If you had told my 20-something-year-old self that I would ever be a welcome part of a synagogue as a lesbian” and part of an interfaith family, “I never would have believed it,” said kimmelman, a 47-year-old West Philadelphia resident.
“I remember being a little skeptical because I had never been part of a synagogue,” she said, while attending the synagogue’s end-of-year religious school celebration earlier this month. She, her wife and their daughter “have been a welcome part of the community since Day 1,” she enthused.
That sort of experience is precisely what Grabelle Herrmann had in mind when she started Kol Tzedek a decade ago while still a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.
“I think that the synagogue is a unique place” that has a “sense of connection with tradition and, at the same time, it’s radically inclusive,” said Grabelle Herrmann, who is leaving in late June for New York City, where she will lead Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the Upper West Side synagogue started by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement.
Grabelle Herrmann shepherded Kol Tzedek from 20 members a decade ago to a membership that is now 145 households strong — a unique phenomenon not only in West Philadelphia, a neighborhood that had seen its once-vibrant Jewish community all but disappear decades ago, but also in the region, where few new congregations have emerged in recent years.
The rapid growth is attributed both to the rabbi’s popularity as well as the changing nature of the neighborhood itself.
But what will happen to Kol Tzedek when Grabelle Herrmann leaves for New York? That’s the question members of the congregation are now grappling with as they plan for an uncertain future.
Grabelle Herrmann’s own response is clear: “My main hope is just that people continue to stay engaged and involved and don’t say, ‘Rabbi Lauren is leaving; I’m going to hit the road.’ That they say, ‘This is the kind of congregation I want to be a part of,’ and they continue to help build it,” the rabbi said.
If the congregation mirrors the neighborhood, then odds are that it will continue to grow.
The upswing in West Philadelphia, spurred in large part by the University of Pennsylvania’s efforts, was already well underway when Kol Tzedek was founded in 2004. The college has long provided its employees with financial incentives to purchase homes in the neighborhood and, in 2001, helped create the Penn Alexander School, a K-8 public school considered one of the best in the state.
Since then, the gentrification of the once marginal part of Philadelphia has accelerated as development has continually pushed further west of the Schuylkill River. The community is now home to an eclectic mix of people, where graduate students, freegans and Prius owners can be found at the same block party.
The rabbi said families who sent their children to the elementary school provided an early base for the congregation. There had been no operating synagogues in West Philadelphia for decades; most had closed or left for the suburbs 30 years earlier. But Grabelle Herrmann hoped Jewish life could rebound along with the larger community — and it did.
“I saw a neighborhood that didn’t have any synagogue,” the rabbi said in a recent interview at her home office. “I saw a neighborhood with a lot of potential.”
The original members of the congregation started holding services — with a Torah scroll borrowed from the rabbinical college — at Calvary United Methodist Church, where it shared space with a Korean church and Mennonites, among other faith groups. The synagogue still holds Shabbat and holiday services in the Baltimore Avenue church.
Grabelle Herrmann said she realized she was on to something when more than 120 people showed up for the congregation’s first event, a Chanukah party.
“When Rabbi Lauren came, it was like a breath of fresh air because we had seen that younger families were moving back into the neighborhood, and that this could really be a viable thing,” said Deborah Zuchman, 68, an artist who has lived in West Philadelphia for more than 40 years and who had not seen much Jewish life in the area since the 1980s when she, her husband and their two children were involved with a chavurah with about 15 other families.
Congregants attributed Kol Tzedek’s success to the rabbi’s efforts to be inclusive of interfaith families and members of the LGBT community, the spirituality of services and the emphasis on social justice.
The synagogue was one of the founding congregations in 2010 of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER), an interfaith group engaged in social justice issues. For example, the group organized an event in December where lay people and clergy, including Grabelle Herrmann, then in a leadership role in POWER, lay down outside an Eagles game for a “die-in,” a show of solidarity with the black men killed during altercations with police forces across the country over the last year.
The location of Kol Tzedek also lent itself to interfaith gatherings. On Sundays during its early years, the synagogue’s “Torah school” was taught to the soundtrack of church services filtering in from above. The school, with 63 students this year, has since relocated to the University City Arts League building at 42nd and Spruce streets.
At the church, “you get exposed to other cultures and other faith communities and it broadens your perspective,” said Rob Auritt, 44, a Comcast-Spectacor attorney, who joined in 2006. Through relationships like the one it has with POWER, he added, “we’ve found a common voice with those communities.”
When Auritt, who came from an observant background, and his wife, Suzanne Landau, who was not particularly religious growing up, came to the congregation for the first time for Kol Nidre services, they realized they had found the middle ground they had been seeking.
“Rabbi Lauren and a prayer leader came to the microphone and just started to breathe into the microphone, a sort of yogic breathing almost,” Auritt recalled. “Everyone just fell into a hush and a sort of nigun emerged in the room; it was like instant comfort, because that’s the kind of non-traditional Jewish experience” that appealed to him and his wife.
Auritt, a former board member and synagogue president, is now chairing the committee to find a new rabbi. The congregation, like many synagogues that are replacing a longtime leader, will first hire an interim rabbi for one year.
As for the future, Auritt said he thinks there is enough “critical mass that feels strongly about this unique, welcoming institution that’s very non-judgmental,” to sustain the congregation, which has broadened its base beyond West Philadelphia. Congregants now come from around the city.
One of those is Rebecca Femia, who joined Kol Tzedek two years ago with her three kids and husband, whom she described as a “lapsed Catholic.”
“Rabbi Lauren came out of her way to come to my house, to meet with me,” said Femia, 43, who lives in South Philadelphia and has worked for nonprofit organizations. “She let me know that it was OK that I couldn’t really reconcile my feelings with what it means to be culturally Jewish, religiously Jewish. I felt like I could continue to struggle with that here and I didn’t need to have the answer.”
Femia said she got a call from the rabbi letting her know that she was leaving and explaining how difficult the decision was for her.
“I’m sick that she’s leaving,” said Femia. “I’ll admit that there are moments where, without her, my connection isn’t really that strong or as strong, especially since it’s a good 25 to 35-minute drive for us to get here.”
For her part, Grabelle Herrmann sounds optimistic about her own future and that of the congregation.
She said she is looking forward to moving from a place where she didn’t have an office and was the only full-time staff member to one where there is a cantor, education director, administrative director and 260 families — and to standing on the pulpit of a congregation founded in 1922 and once filled by Kaplan, a luminary in progressive Judaism.
“It’s humbling and exciting to walk into a congregation where one of the major thinkers of Jewish life” had the pulpit, said Grabelle Herrmann, 38, who is married to Jon Grabelle Herrmann and has two young children.
She agreed that a testament to her leadership would be Kol Tzedek’s continuing to grow without her.
“I feel sad to leave the congregation, and I really feel like I’m going to miss the people dearly,” she said. If she had taken the job “four or five years ago, I think it would have different consequences for the synagogue; the synagogue would have really been under more threat.” But now, she sees strong leadership across the congregation. “It will change, but I have no worries that it’s not going to continue to be a wonderful place.”
Femia hopes this will be the case, but said she still harbors some reservations. “I hope that someone as wonderful as her comes in; I suppose that’s possible.”