It was a stormy night, the rain coming down in steady sheets, and a line of multicolored umbrellas snaked its way into Cavalry United Methodist Church at 48th and Baltimore. The people under those umbrellas weren’t waiting for church services, though.
They were there to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist congregation in the midst of a growth spurt.
In the last few years, synagogue board president Stefan Lynch said, KT has grown “in multiple measures” by about 50 percent. In 2004, the budding congregation’s first event, a Chanukah party, drew 150 people. This year, KT had close to 700 people register for its High Holiday services.
This month also marks one year since KT — which has about 200 member households and 60-plus children in its Torah school — has had a full-time spiritual leader, Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari. It also marks the official dedication of its storefront: a building on South 50th Street the congregation shares with the Jewish Farm School. The location, in addition to housing synagogue offices, serves as a learning space and community center and, since its opening in January, has been a vital hub of activity, with more than 100 well-attended events.
“Unlike a lot of synagogues right now,” said Lynch, “our membership debates are more like, ‘Should we be doing any membership outreach at all?’”
Given that so much growth has happened during Fornari’s tenure, one might be tempted to connect his leadership with the synagogue’s expansion. But he’s reluctant to take credit, attributing it to a number of other factors, including the foundation laid by KT’s founding rabbi, Lauren Grabelle Herrmann; a strong board that understands the congregation’s needs; an influx of young Jews into West Philadelphia; the establishment of the physical space; and the hiring of a full-time operations director.
“A lot of what we’ve been doing is building internal infrastructure that is allowing us to capture some of the energy and growth — some very mundane, really important things like revamping our database, and setting up an office space,” Fornari said. “We redid our whole dues structure to be more transparent and inclusive. There was a huge amount of work that went into thinking about how we want to communicate what it costs to run the synagogue and how can we channel resources so that it sustains people spiritually and politically. So we’ve been doing a lot of — there’s a phrase ‘ein kemach ein Torah,’ ‘where there’s no dough, there’s no flour, where there’s no sustenance, there’s no Torah.’ But I see it more as if we can’t figure out how to sustain the community, then we can’t have a vessel for transmitting holiness and Torah to the community. We’ve been doing a lot of building of that vessel.”
The emphasis on the pragmatic has been helpful, Lynch agreed, but he also gives Fornari credit.
“He attracted a new energy to the shul,” Lynch said. “It’s a pretty amazing thing to have a young, queer, trans rabbi who is also a phenomenal teacher and service leader.”
Fornari said it has been a good fit: “I feel like it’s a great match, a good shidduch, as they say, where we have a shared vision of what we’re trying to build.”
That shared vision, anchored by an emphasis on social justice and inclusivity, has brought in an especially young and diverse membership, as KT board vice president Aimee Ando explained to attendees at Rosh Hashanah services.
“Ours is a community full of spirit and spunk,” she said. “We hold difference across age, gender spectrum, ancestral origin and physical body with pride and dignity. We are an unconventional community in many ways.”
One of those ways, she noted, was in terms of average age. “Ours is a shul where I might be considered one of its elders,” said Ando, who is 42.
Lynch, 46, agreed. When he gets together with other Reconstructionist board presidents, he finds that KT’s situation is unusual.
“While they’re trying to recruit young adults, our frame is totally different,” he said. “We have an over-50 havurah, which would [represent] the entire population of a lot of other shuls. But for us it’s really important to think about how we serve the needs of older folks in our community. I think we’re serving the needs of younger folks and young families pretty well.”
Lynch and his partner moved from San Francisco to Philadelphia several years ago, in part to find a progressive and queer-friendly Jewish community in which to raise their kids.
“You’d think we could find that in San Francisco, but we spent a lot of time trying to build it and couldn’t,” he said. They felt welcome at KT.
“A lot of folks who go to Kol Tzedek would not be welcome elsewhere or would not feel welcome,” Lynch said. “It feels good to be able to provide that to folks who, for a variety of reasons, don’t have a lot of other Jewish options.”
That includes Jews of color and Jews in the LGBTQ community, among others — people Lynch sees coming to the synagogue’s classes. The classes emphasize “a Judaism that has room for them,” Lynch said, “for their queerness, their radicalness, their Israel-Palestine politics, their feminism, their transness.”
The classes have proven popular.
“Almost every class we have feels like it’s over-enrolled and that’s because people feel like they want to be learning,” said Fornari. The classes are held at the KT storefront, which will be dedicated on Sept. 26 with a mezuzah hanging and a concert. Every day, new people stop by.
“There’s a tremendous number of young people walking in the door who are invested in developing an authentic relationship with Judaism as a spiritual practice,” Fornari said. “Some of what’s happening [with the synagogue’s growth] is happening in a prayer context and a lot of it is happening in a learning context. Both are really exciting to me.”
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