Two Prominent Rabbis Retiring Next Year

Rabbi Lance Sussman (Courtesy of Congregation Keneseth Israel)

Next summer, the Philadelphia region will lose two of its longest-tenured rabbis.

After 21 years, Lance Sussman is stepping down as senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. And after 27 years, Aaron Krupnick is doing the same at Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, New Jersey.

Both men are leaving behind significant legacies, according to congregants.

KI and Beth El maintain congregations of about 800 and 825 families, respectively. And during their respective rabbinates, Sussman and Krupnick oversaw the build-up of preschool operations that sustained their synagogues for another generation.

But since Sussman is 67 and Krupnick is 60, both men feel they are entering new stages in their lives.

Between October 2020 and June 2021, Sussman experienced a hospitalization after a double bypass operation, the death of his mother and a move to Philadelphia. He said the nine-month stretch made him realize he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Liz Sussman, and their five children and two grandchildren.

“You get to see life from the other side,” Sussman said of his hospitalization.
Krupnick said he always thought about retiring in his 60s. And in recent years, he thought about it more and more.

He knew he couldn’t see the future of Judaism like he could in his 30s, when he pushed for the creation of Beth El’s preschool: The Early Childhood Center. Krupnick also said he wants to see what God has in store for him while he’s still physically fit.

“Jewish life needs to evolve,” Krupnick said.

Sussman came to KI in 2001 after 11 years at Temple Concord in Binghamton, New York.
At first, the KI search committee didn’t want to hire him, according to its chair at the time, Karen Sirota. Sussman was leading a temple with about 250 congregants. KI’s membership, on the other hand, consisted of 1,200 families.

At the same time, Sirota and the committee liked Sussman’s resume, so they decided to visit Binghamton and observe him. After the Friday night Shabbat service, they couldn’t get a minute with the rabbi. He was busy talking to congregant after congregant.

The committee was sold.

Sirota said Sussman brought the same warmth and connection to KI. But she also said that, with Sussman, that wasn’t just about the culture he established. The senior rabbi increased KI’s educational programming to give members more opportunities to connect.

“People became more relational to each other because of the programs he helped to create,” Sirota said.

Both Sussmans, Lance and Liz, also helped families build relationships over the course of their life cycles. Liz Sussman ran the Richard E. Rudolf Jr. Preschool & Infant Center and helped increase enrollment by more than a third, according to Lance Sussman.

A decade ago, Sussman also started livestreaming services to help people connect even when they couldn’t be together in person.

But his proudest accomplishment may be the second-floor space that reminds members why it’s important to connect: The Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center. Sussman dedicated the museum to his grandparents, who escaped Nazi Germany. Their picture hangs near the entryway.

“I’ve done what I set out to do,” Sussman said.

Krupnick was born and raised in Philadelphia, but his first big rabbi post was at Agudath Israel in Montgomery, Alabama, where he served for six years. By 1994, though, Krupnick’s father had terminal cancer, so the rabbi started seeking a position
closer to home.

But he only found one opening: At Beth El, which at the time was in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. So, Krupnick took it. Then, in 1995 at a Jewish conference, another rabbi told Krupnick that preschools were the future of synagogues.

Rabbi Aaron Krupnick with students from Congregation Beth El’s Early Childhood Center. (Courtesy of Congregation Beth El

“That’s how you’ll get young families,” the colleague told Krupnick.

The rabbi returned to South Jersey, proposed the idea to his board of trustees and started building. In 1998, the school opened. Two years later, Beth El completed a new school building in Voorhees with 21 classrooms. By 2010, the temple was opening a sanctuary at the same location and moving its operation there.

Now, the Early Childhood Center welcomes about 140 kids a year, and the synagogue maintains one of the largest congregations in the region.

Krupnick said Beth El was one of the first synagogues to open a preschool. It was not a common model before the ’90s.

“That was a need I understood as a young parent,” he said.

The senior rabbi believes digital operations will be the next wave of the future. Beth El is on social media and started offering online services during the pandemic last year. But Krupnick delegates many of the digital responsibilities to younger congregants.

“We’re going to need younger people to lead that,” he said.; 215-832-0740


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