New Rabbis in Philadelphia Return to Their Roots

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As Rabbi Jason Bonder unpacked boxes in his new office, he looked out his window at the synagogue’s playground, where he could imagine his two children — a 3-year-old and a 7-month-old — playing.

It was June 15, his first day as associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.

Rabbi Jason Bonder

“A really special part of being at Beth Or and having such a wonderful pre-school here is to be able to see [my kids] and be able to be near them,” Bonder said. “Especially with the demands of being a rabbi, it’s nice to be in close proximity to the kids all day.”

After having served at Temple Emanuel of Tempe in Tempe, Ariz., for the past three years, moving to Philadelphia is a homecoming for Bonder and his family.

Bonder is originally from Long Island and attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), while his wife grew up in Cherry Hill, N.J. Her parents now live in Center City, so this move allows them to be closer to family.

As rabbis leave congregations across the Philadelphia area this summer, a new slate of rabbis like Bonder will fill their places. Besides Bonder, who will replace Rabbi David Gerber at Beth Or, they include Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, who will replace Rabbi Elliot Holin at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park; Rabbi Scott Hoffman, who will replace Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg at Congregation Beth El in Yardley; and Rabbi Andrew Markowitz, who will replace Rabbi Ariella Rosen at Adath Israel in Merion Station.

For these rabbis, Philadelphia isn’t really all that new.

While Bonder attended RRC, Markowitz and Berkowitz grew up in the area, and Hoffman attended the University of Pennsylvania.

“[I’m] just excited for all the new things, excited for myself, my family, just really excited to be here and to meet all the people in the community,” Bonder said. “Everyone I’ve met so far just seems so wonderful. It’s going to be a great experience for me.”

Similar to Bonder, Markowitz is moving closer to family.

Rabbi Andrew Markowitz

He and his wife grew up in the area, and their parents still live here. Markowitz is from Northeast Philadelphia, and he attended Akiba Hebrew Academy — now Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. His wife grew up attending Adath Israel, but the synagogue has changed a lot since her childhood, Markowitz noted.

He and his wife met through United Synagogue Youth but grew close as counselors at Camp Ramah in the Poconos when they were 19 and 18, respectively. There, he met Adath Israel Rabbi Eric Yanoff, who was a camp rabbi.

“It’s beautiful,” Markowitz said. “It’s sort of a l’dor v’dor moment that I get to come back to the community that shaped my identity and my wife’s identity.”

He is coming from a position as director of spiritual programming/rabbi at Beit T’shuvah, a Jewish addiction treatment center in Los Angeles.

With his son, who just turned a year old, and wanting to be closer to their family, he and his wife started considering moving back to the East Coast. That’s when he saw the open position at Adath Israel.

“They say it takes a village,” Markowitz said, “and while Southern California is lovely, our families are here.”

Berkowitz, like Markowitz, had many quintessential Jewish experiences growing up in the Philadelphia area.

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz

She grew up in Broomall, attended Temple Sholom in Broomall, sang in a youth choir at synagogues throughout the Philadelphia area and went to URJ Camp Harlam. (She even spent a summer in college interning at the Jewish Exponent.) Her parents still live in Broomall, while her brother calls South Philly home.

“It feels simultaneously like a homecoming and like something completely different,” Berkowitz said. “I would have been drawn to this congregation, even if it was across the country. I’m really glad that it isn’t because I also get to go home and be with my family. It’s not exactly the community I grew up in, but it’s also wonderful in its own right.”

She has spent the past three years at Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

The way Kol Ami presented itself to her in the search process made her interested in the position. The synagogue had prepared letters from congregants addressed to their future rabbi. As a writer and storyteller, this was attractive to Berkowitz.

The letters spoke about inclusion of LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, their passion for Jewish music and learning and their want for their new rabbi to love their children — all interests Berkowitz shared.

“Basically, we were very much in alignment,” she said. “I was hoping they would feel the same way, which thankfully, they did.”

Rabbi Scott Hoffman

For Hoffman, moving to Yardley and starting a new position as the rabbi at Congregation Beth El represents a new chapter in his life, both professionally and personally.

He has lived on Long Island for 23 years, where he served as a rabbi at Temple Israel of South Merrick and Lake Success Jewish Center. His congregation recently merged with another, and his position disappeared, putting him in a situation where he had to seek employment elsewhere.

With his children now grown, he is planning on moving to the Philadelphia area by himself, while his wife stays in New York. The two plan on commuting to each other’s cities on the weekends.

Hoffman is not unfamiliar with Philadelphia. He majored in the biological basis of behavior and minored in Jewish studies at Penn. At the time, though, he said, he probably had no idea where Yardley was located. He recalled the Northeast as the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia at the time and having to get kosher meat from there.

“I’m really very blessed,” Hoffman said. “Finding a position is not simple in your 50s. In many professions, they want younger people to take on these responsibilities. But this is a great place. This is probably the best place I could have landed. Even if everyone had offered me a job, I might well have accepted this one.”

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