The world changes quickly, but Congregation Rodeph Shalom is keeping up, according to its senior rabbi, Jill Maderer.
“The synagogue is not a bubble, it’s not apart, it’s not separate from the world,” Maderer said. “The world has helped us see that there are lots of identities that were marginalized and not seen decades ago. We’ve learned to better see and respond now.”
In 2015, Rodeph Shalom and Congregation Beth Ahavah merged. Beth Ahavah, founded in 1975, was created at a time when LGBTQ+ people struggled to find a welcoming religious environment. Beth Ahavah was first incorporated into Rodeph Shalom in 1977 and moved from its Letitia Street address to Rodeph Shalom’s Broad Street building in 2006.
Members like Monica Kramer were accustomed to other religious institutions not being “very open” to LGBTQ identities. A member of Rodeph Shalom since 2016, Kramer was drawn to the synagogue when they found the LGBTQ section on its website while browsing for synagogues online.
“I felt like I could be welcomed there,” Kramer said. “I was taken aback that they proudly had it on their website.”
Today, Kramer is a member of the synagogue’s board of directors and co-chairs its membership and engagement task force.
The congregation dates its founding to 1795, but the synagogue persisted for more than 50 years before it even got its own building. In the following centuries, the synagogue has accrued a rich history — one that has documented the changes in society at large. Since then, the congregation has grown to include more than 1,000 households.
Throughout the years, the synagogue has weathered many historic uncertainties — most recently, the pandemic.
“Just living in a world after the pandemic means living a world where we take less for granted and perhaps embrace a little more uncertainty in our lives — that for so many of us demands a spiritual community,” Maderer said.
Maderer said she was drawn to Rodeph Shalom by her excitement for being in a progressive Jewish community in the city and “the commitment of the congregation to its own community and the broader community — through social justice work, community service and teaching.”
Thomas Perloff, the president of Rodeph Shalom from 1998-2002 and 2004-2005, echoed that commitment to activism.
“Being in Center City brings us closer to feeding projects and activism,” he said.
Perloff, 78, has been a member of Rodeph Shalom since he was 6. During his time at the helm, he helped the synagogue navigate some tough choices.
The toughest, Perloff said, was when they decided to close the Suburban Center in Elkins Park. The decision was made to keep up with changing demographics, Perloff said, pointing to Rodeph Shalom’s status as the only reform synagogue in the city proper.
While it can be challenging to balance honoring tradition with embracing the present, Maderer said the synagogue meets that challenge with joy.
“That’s our mission. I don’t think it’s a struggle. I think we grapple, but we bring interpretation and we have faith that the tradition was always meant to be relevant,” Maderer said.
One way the synagogue stays connected is through a speaker series.
Its latest speaker series, Broad Perspectives, was developed in partnership with the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University. The series is available to the public through registration. Attendees will hear from intellectuals, writers, activists and cultural representatives.
The first installment took place on Sept. 9, as members heard from noted local chef Michael Solomonov and author Adeena Sussman about connecting with food and family-inspired memories.
On Nov. 2, attendees will hear from Annie Polland, the president of the Tenement Museum, and Daniel Greene, the chief historian and curator for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, who will lead the Holocaust education component of the new White House National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism.
The strategy, released in May, includes more than 100 new actions and more than 100 calls to action which the Biden administration says will raise awareness of antisemitism, protect Jewish communities and reverse the normalization of antisemitism.
“It [the second installment] will be a conversation about how we tell history in a time when I think especially about our African-American brothers and sisters and neighbors who are listening to — and all of us who are listening to — these different curricula and these different ways of, I think, degrading their history,” Maderer said. “It’s a way for us to bring some Jewish learning into what’s ultimately also a justice issue.”
On Feb. 21, Talia Lavin, a journalist and the author of “Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy” will speak, and the series concludes on April 4 with Sigal Ben-Porath, a scholar of democracy, free speech on campus and antisemitism, in conversation with Lila Corwin Berman, director of the Feinstein Center and a Temple history professor.
Learn more or register to attend at rodephshalom.org/broadperspectives.