Rebecca Rhynhart grew up in a Reform Jewish household, had a bat mitzvah at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia and sent her daughter to Jewish preschool at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City.
Even today, Rhynhart celebrates Jewish holidays like Chanukah and Passover. And while she is far from Orthodox, she is driven by two Jewish values that have always stuck with her: empathy and fairness.
The 48-year-old stated those values to the Jewish Exponent in August when she was discussing how her religion might impact her run for mayor of Philadelphia. And after the Democrat announced her campaign on Oct. 25 at Nichols Park in West Philadelphia, she repeated those same values as motivation.
“There are certain tenets of Judaism, of empathy, of fairness, that resonate with me, that I look at when I look at what’s not right in our city,” Rhynhart said.
Rhynhart resigned as city controller to run for mayor. Philadelphia requires city employees to step down to run for mayor. But before she did, Rhynhart released a report through her office that detailed some of the Philadelphia Police Department’s shortcomings.
The controller found that there are not enough cops, only about 11 to 22 per police district, and response times that are slower in Black and brown neighborhoods than in more white ones, among other issues. It confirmed what she already believed: The city needs to feel more empathy for residents impacted by violent crime and show more fairness toward them, too.
In 2021, Philadelphia set a record with 561 homicides. As of Oct. 31, the city has seen 445 homicides. In September, Philadelphia reached 1,000 car-jacking incidents for the first time, with three months still to go.
“We need to get our city safe,” Rhynhart said. “People don’t feel safe.”
Rhynhart is one of four Democrats to declare their candidacies for the May primary. City council members Derek Green, Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Cherelle Parker also resigned to run. As many as eight other Democrats are rumored as possible candidates. Jewish real estate developer Allan Domb resigned from his city council position to go on a listening tour through Philadelphia neighborhoods, though he has not yet announced a run.
Philadelphia has not had a Republican mayor since Bernard Samuel from 1941 to 1952, and Mayor Jim Kenney won more than 80% of the vote in both of his elections in 2015 and 2019. So if Rhynhart can win the Democratic primary, she will likely win the city’s executive seat next November.
But against so many candidates, that’s a big if, especially when the most important issue, crime, is obvious to everyone. The former controller, though, feels like she has the winning argument.
It starts with empathizing with city residents and showing fairness toward them with her policies.
Rhynhart’s public safety plan includes putting more cops on the streets, but it does not start there, she explained. It starts with “intervention strategies,” as she describes them. The mother wants to give the “mostly young men in this street life a way out.”
A way out could begin with a life coach with the same lived experience, job training and therapy, according to the candidate. These strategies have been used successfully in other cities like Oakland, she added.
“A majority of them want the way out of that life,” Rhynhart said. “There is a small percentage that won’t stop and that need to be prosecuted.”
Intervention strategies focus on individuals. But Rhynhart also wants to help communities.
She believes the city needs to fund more services to help young people after school. In too many poor neighborhoods with the most violence, she said, libraries are not open after school and there is not recreational programming each day.
“As mayor, I would urgently work to get city services in areas most impacted by the violence,” Rhynhart said.
But while the candidate thinks that it’s important to address these root causes, she said she understands the need to fight crime as it happens. That’s why she also wants to put more cops on patrol. Her report discovered that just under 2,600 PPD officers out of nearly 6,000 are on the streets.
Rhynhart believes that residents across the city want to know their police officers. They want to see them on the streets and on bikes, not “running from one 9-1-1 call to the next,” she said. Rhynhart’s report found that civilianizing non-patrol positions and decreasing abuse of the state’s heart and lung disability benefit would increase the number of officers in neighborhoods.
“This is about the urgency of it,” she said. JE