In 5783, and in the seventh year under its second religious leader, Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia has about 370 households in its congregation. What started as a “simple chavurah,” as a 2016 Jewish Exponent article put it, in the apartment of founder Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermann in 2002 has grown into a Reconstructionist community that rivals some of its Reform, suburban contemporaries in size.
The community grew from that “simple chavurah” to 140 households by the time of Grabelle Hermann’s departure in 2016. And under Fornari, it has more than doubled. About 90% of those congregants live in Philadelphia, and around 60% walk to the shul.
Therefore, it’s time to find a permanent home, according to synagogue leaders.
As a fundraising campaign on Kol Tzedek’s website explains, “5783 marks the 18th anniversary” of the synagogue. And the number 18 corresponds to “chai,” or “life.” So to keep the temple alive and thriving, the Reconstructionist community is starting a grassroots effort to raise $360,000. If collected, that money will go towards a new physical space that the synagogue will either purchase or rent.
At the moment, the temple shares a space with Calvary United Methodist Church, and the building is aging. Synagogue members are grateful for their long and successful partnership with the church, but they believe it’s time for a new home. Kol Tzedek needs wheelchair accessibility, heating in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, proper ventilation and bathrooms that work on a consistent basis, according to Naomi Segal, a founding member.
“We have none of that at Cavalry,” she said. “It’s just an old, beat-up building.”
To help find a new, robust home, Kol Tzedek leaders are asking members to donate in the symbolic multiple of 18. That could mean $18, $18,000 or $180,000, according to the website page about the campaign. But any amount will help.
The synagogue wants to remain in its Cedar Park neighborhood so congregants can continue to walk to temple activities. But real estate in the area is expensive, so renting may be the best bet, according to Segal, who went as far as to say that “nobody wants us to own or build.”
“It’s a money trap. We’ve watched other synagogues collapse, or almost collapse, from financial issues,” she added. “We don’t want that.”
Segal also does not believe that Kol Tzedek can raise the millions of dollars that it will likely take to buy a building in Cedar Park. The synagogue’s membership is a mix of students, people who have lived in West Philly for a long time and people from outside the city on the Main Line or in South Jersey. They bring a range of incomes to the table “from basically impoverished to well-off,” said Segal.
Congregants in the Reconstructionist community also do not want to purchase a space and wall themselves off from the rest of the neighborhood. As Segal explained it, “We want a space we can share with the community.”
“We’re conscious of our role in gentrification in West Philly,” she added. “We want to make sure we’re not going to do something that will drive them out.”
All Kol Tzedek members are looking for, according to the founding member, is to no longer have to drag in an air-conditioner unit through the window for High Holiday services in the fall. As well as to no longer have to wear scarves and mittens during services in the winter.
A community that gained 100 new members during the pandemic would simply like to gather comfortably. As Fornari explained, Kol Tzedek, like many synagogues, developed online prayer and learning experiences during COVID. But congregants need to come back together.
“The pandemic was so isolating,” he said.
Starting in January, though, Fornari will be isolating himself for six months with a sabbatical. The congregation is allowing its 40-year-old rabbi, who has worked tirelessly to help grow the congregation for the past seven years, his own shmita year for release and regeneration. Fornari plans to tend to his body with exercise and yoga and to his mind with four weeks of silent meditation. He is also going to dive deep into Maimonides’ medieval text “Mishneh Torah,” or “Hilchot Teshuvah,” a book about “how to repair harm,” as Fornari explained it.
The rabbi hopes to translate the text into a book of his own and use the lessons to inform his rabbinate upon his return to Kol Tzedek in July.
“Change and transformation are not only possible but a constant part of the world,” he said. “We’re living in a time where there’s a lot of feeling we need to do and repair to stay in relationship with our family, our friends, our community.” JE