Congregation Kol Emet has a scenic, tree-covered property in Yardley. It has 180 member units in its community. It has a preschool, a summer camp and a $750,000 capital campaign to update its property. The outdoor sanctuary, or “contemplative space,” with seating for 100 and lights hanging overhead, is the first part of that.
Perhaps most importantly, this Reconstructionist congregation has stability at the top. Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy is celebrating her 10th year in that position in 2023. And members are celebrating with her.
On Dec. 1, they will host a Shabbat dinner in her honor at the synagogue.
“I’ve tried doing things on my own here, and it never works. I have to have engagement and investment from the congregation,” Boswell-Levy said.
Boswell-Levy says she’s not going anywhere. Synagogue leaders, like President Howard Greenberg, fundraising chair Dina Bortnichak and building committee chair Randi Davis, say they want to keep her, too.
A 10-year marriage with the desire for more would appear to be a happy one. But it was not always so simple. The relationship between rabbi and congregation progressed from love at first sight to the challenges of living together to this thriving partnership we see today.
Love at First Sight
Rabbi Howard Cove led Kol Emet from 1996-2014. He was “beloved by many,” Davis said. But after almost two decades of a male rabbi, it was Greenberg, the man in the leadership committee, who said let’s hire a woman.
The search came down to two males and one female. The female was Boswell-Levy.
“I said, ‘Take the woman,’” Greenberg recalled.
But the leaders also loved the woman. She was leading Tzedek v’Shalom at the time, a nearby synagogue made up of many former Kol Emet members. Davis also said that “a lot of our leadership were women.”
“Women relate to women,” she added with a smile.
Boswell-Levy was 37 at the time and a new mother. Bortnichak thought she would relate well to bar and bat mitzvah students and preschool families.
“She was really going to be a member of our community,” the fundraising chair said. “That she would not just lead us but be one of us as well.”
The rabbi was comfortable at Tzedek v’Shalom, a smaller congregation. However, it was three Tzedek v’Shalom members, all former congregants of Kol Emet, who told her to take the leap.
“You need to grow in your career,” Boswell-Levy recalled of what they said.
She came for an interview, led services and saw that people were singing.
The Challenges of Living Together
Early on, there was an age difference between Boswell-Levy and some of her congregants. Bortnichak remembered that the rabbi had to learn that the synagogue could plan events after 7 p.m., her child’s bedtime.
“She’s come a long way,” Bortnichak said.
Over time, the rabbi started planning gatherings after 7 p.m. She also began to reach out to people to acknowledge positive life events.
Then, during COVID, the synagogue organized a committee to contact members and set up grocery deliveries. After Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, the rabbi opened the synagogue doors for a gathering three days later. She has made herself consistently available to members in the month since, too.
“She’s approachable. She’s a real person. She’s one of us,” Bortnichak said.
The rabbi teared up on the bimah on Oct. 8.
“She wanted to encourage us to share our feelings,” Davis said.
“As the years have gone by, I’ve felt more and more comfortable being myself,” the rabbi added.
The Thriving Partnership
Boswell-Levy’s anniversary party will celebrate her decade as rabbi. But it will also be part of a monthly tradition at Kol Emet: Shabbat dinners instead of services.
The rabbi said it’s interesting that her lay leaders wanted her to be “one of them.” That’s how she sees Kol Emet: as an informal, open-minded place.
It was that way before she arrived, too. But she has worked to maintain those values. At the same time, she is also now confident enough to make her own additions…with congregational consent of course.
Davis, Bortnichak and Greenberg credited her with reaching out to non-Jewish communities in the wake of the Hamas attack. Three church congregations joined Kol Emet for a recent Shabbat service. This is important during the post-attack spike in antisemitic incidents both in the Philadelphia area and nationally.
“They got to hear a little of the history of what’s going on from our perspective,” Davis said.
As Davis finished talking, she had to join other lay leaders in the hallway to greet the HVAC guys. Boswell-Levy was already talking to them. They all joined each other to discuss the project.
It’s the next big step in the $750,000 capital campaign, according to Boswell-Levy and Greenberg.