Congregation Or Shalom’s new rabbi is a change for the Conservative synagogue.
For the past nine years, the Berwyn shul was headed by Rabbi Jacob Rosner, who has an Orthodox background and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Since July, Rabbi Kami Knapp has served the congregation after Rosner moved to Newburgh, New York, to serve Congregation Agudas Israel. Knapp, 36, brings a different flavor to the shul, having been ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi and hailing from the West Coast. She’s also the first female rabbi to serve Or Shalom.
“Everyone has been very welcoming,” Knapp said. “It was a big change for this community, hiring a woman rabbi, and a woman who’s ordained Reconstructionist. Honestly, the community has handled it with grace and is welcoming and inclusive and wants me to succeed. So it’s been a wonderful experience, and I’m really excited about our future and where we hope to go.”
Knapp said she didn’t originally intend to become a rabbi, and her journey to the pulpit was a long process of self-discovery.
She was born and raised in Seattle and earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Seattle University with a goal of working as a diplomat or ambassador. She later earned a master’s degree in international studies and diplomacy from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies.
Before graduating, she planned to get a job in London at either the United Nations or the U.S. Department of State, but the Great Recession hit and she was forced to head back home.
To support herself, she took a job at a mental health hospital in Kirkland, Washington. Eventually, she hit a crossroads and, with the guidance of a life coach, discovered her passion for Jewish community service.
She enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote and spent time studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It was there, she said, a passion for the Zohar and Kabbalah was sparked.
Knapp was ordained in 2017 and worked as program director of the Diller Teen Fellowship. Although she was ordained Reconstructionist, she described herself as more traditional and Conservative in her theology and practice. So when an opportunity arose at Or Shalom, she took it, believing the congregation to be a good fit.
“What jumped out at me the most was its focus on the community,” Knapp said. “People here very much take pride in contributing their time, their expertise, their passion to the synagogue. And that can be hard to find.”
Or Shalom dates to the early ’70s, when it was founded in Wayne as “The Conservative Synagogue of the Main Line.” It’s been in Berwyn since 1985, and was one of the first Conservative synagogues to provide full equality to female members.
Scott Markovitz, the synagogue’s membership chair, said Knapp has a more modern approach to the rabbinate, with an interactive and engaging style that is attractive to younger members. It’s a new perspective.
“She’s really a change for us. We previously had a very traditional rabbi. Rabbi Kami brings a fresh view of things,” Markovitz said. “It took a little more open-mindedness to even think outside of a traditionally trained Conservative rabbi, but she’s working hard to maintain our image and traditions as a Conservative shul.”
Congregation President Andrew Levin said Knapp’s more nonreligious business experience made her an attractive candidate during the hiring process. He described Knapp as a person with excellent communication skills, a logical speaker, organized and easy to work with.
“The one thing that I appreciate about her is that she’s not coming into the shul to change what we’ve done in the first six months. It shows the depth of her interpersonal skills,” Levin said. “The direction we go in a year, two years, three years will be very interesting. But she’s really made a commitment to keep Conservative traditions and keep the things we’ve been doing while making incremental changes.”
Knapp said she intends to spend her first few years at Or Shalom learning about its traditions, customs and culture. It’s only after building trust between herself and the congregants that she plans to implement new ideas.
“I have my own personal goals, but ultimately, I want it to be a collective effort,” Knapp said. “I want us to be together for what we want our goals to be, and work together to make that happen.”