Congregations of Shaare Shamayim Welcomes New Rabbi Sandra Berliner

Rabbi Sandra Berliner (Photo by Roy Berliner)

In the history section on its website, Congregations of Shaare Shamayim describes its community as “a place that accepts all comers.” And it’s hard to argue with that description.

The synagogue, located on Verree Road in Northeast Philadelphia, is actually 15 synagogues combined into one. In 1966, the Greater Northeast Jewish Congregation merged with Congregation Shaare Shamayim of South Philadelphia. Then, in 1989, it did the same with Congregation Beth Judah. Finally, throughout the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, many more synagogues joined the community in Northeast Philly.

After completing the process in 2017, temple leaders chose the updated name “to be assured of never forgetting our long history,” reads the history section.

Today that history, as well as the 400 families who keep it alive, are in the hands of a new rabbi: Sandra Berliner, a 67-year-old resident of Cheltenham Township.

Congregations of Shaare Shamayim welcomed Berliner to its community on Aug. 15. But she really started almost a year earlier. Last fall, following the retirement of Rabbi Reuben Israel Abraham, Berliner stepped in to lead the congregation. And then she just stayed…until temple leaders formalized the arrangement.

“There was a wonderful chemistry as she walked through and spoke to people and got to know people,” synagogue President Fran Gabriel said. “She listened.”

Berliner said she “clicked” with the community when she started filling in last fall.

“Everybody is warm and welcoming, and I’m a warm and welcoming person,” she added.

The rabbi prides herself on accessibility, and it’s her goal to build relationships, she says. If you have a spiritual need, you can call her. The rabbi looks at people “from where they are coming from” without “any pre-conceived ideas.”

It’s an approach she developed over the past 18 years as the rabbi for Federation Housing, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s nonprofit that helps people find places to live. In that role, Berliner visited the organization’s many different housing complexes. She hosted discussion programs, holiday celebrations, private counseling sessions and memorial services.

Berliner was meeting with people from different backgrounds and of varying degrees of faith and practice. It was her responsibility to be the rabbi for all of them.

“I’m proud of the way the community came together to study with me, discuss with me, ask me for private counseling,” she said. “I love being able to teach. I like to think that I inspire a sense of connection to our Jewish traditions.”

The Congregations of Shaare Shamayim are similar. There are different types of Jews within the larger community.

Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia (Courtesy of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim)

Specifically, one group in the community prefers a traditional service. This means that Berliner, as a woman, cannot lead it from the bimah. But the other big group in the synagogue is an egalitarian one, and the new rabbi is very much allowed to lead its service from the bimah.

Yet after their respective services on Shabbat, both groups get together for a Kiddush. They have joint events frequently, and Berliner plans on engaging everyone in classes together.

She wants to connect the groups in synagogue life as often as possible. She also believes that she can. Even though Berliner will not lead the traditional members in High Holiday prayers later this month, she sees herself as “the rabbi for the entire congregation,” she said.

“I see my role there as being a unifier,” the rabbi added. “I would like to see both groups study together, engage in social action projects together, celebrations.”

Berliner is the first female rabbi in the community’s history, according to Gabriel. The president called hiring a woman “a big step for us.” She also said that Berliner connected well with the whole community when she started in 2021, and that traditional congregants will do counseling with her.

The community’s spiritual leader only conducting one of its services is not even different from what the congregations did before. A year ago on the High Holidays, Abraham led the traditional service and temple leaders brought in another rabbi to lead the egalitarian service. Recently on the Sabbath, Cantor Don Samuels and some lay leaders have guided the traditional members in their prayer sessions.

Perhaps more than anything, too, Gabriel believes that Berliner has the right personality for such a unique role. She’s warm, open and clear in her communication with members.

“She has a wonderful rapport with people,” the president said. “Sometimes people mesh together at the right times. It’s the right time for us as a congregation that has a large and very warm and welcoming, egalitarian presence, as well as a traditional presence.” JE

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