With its 800 families, 175 years of history and important programs like the Temple Judea Museum, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park remains one of the area’s most prominent synagogues.
And this summer, it welcomes a new rabbi in Benjamin David.
The 45-year-old marathon runner is replacing the 67-year-old Jewish historian Lance Sussman. The latter announced his retirement last summer and formally stepped down on July 1, opening the door for his successor. Sussman led KI for 21 years after moving to Elkins Park from Temple Concord in Binghamton, New York, a congregation of about 250 families.
David, like Sussman, is leaving a smaller community for a bigger one. His former home, Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, has a little less than 400 members.
In the weeks and months leading up to July 1, the two rabbis, one of Generation X and the other a baby boomer, spent time together.
“I think he’s much more athletic than I am. He’s a distance runner,” Sussman said, laughing.
Endurance is a quality David will need if he’s going to learn the dynamics of such a big community.
Sussman explained to him that inside KI, there are different cohorts. There’s a preschool community, a religious school community, a social action group, an adult education group and a museum team.
Members “cluster around their interests,” the older man said. It is on David to “learn all of them and how they work together,” he added.
David must build a calendar in which every cohort has space to do its thing. But he also needs to find areas where different groups can cooperate.
“Can you bring religious school families in to talk to preschool families?” Sussman asked.
Sussman’s other big lesson was about governance. Sussman has a Ph.D. in American Jewish history and has taught such classes at Princeton University, so he compares KI’s political philosophy to that of the United States.
“It’s a congregation of, by and for the congregants,” he explained.
David will need members to be faithful Jews who fill the pews, hard workers who keep the building running and philanthropists who pay for it all. To get that kind of commitment, he will have to continue to give congregants the say they have come to expect.
KI has a board of directors that decides on policy and a board of trustees that votes on budget items. The latter includes almost 100 people and acts as a sort of House of Representatives to the board of directors’ Senate. The Elkins Park synagogue also has a senior staff of three leaders in the senior rabbi, Cantor Amy Levy and Executive Director Brian Rissinger.
Early on, David must learn how those branches “interface,” as Sussman put it.
“To know the people. That is really core,” the older rabbi added. “And to help them feel good on behalf of the synagogue.”
Before moving to Jenkintown to lead KI, David served as senior rabbi for 10 years at Adath Emanu-El, so he is familiar with this process. He also grew up as the son of a rabbi, Jerome P. David, who led Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, for 47 years. The younger David even ended up at KI many times growing up; he was active in NFTY, the youth organization for Reform Jews.
If there was anyone who was prepared for this position, it was probably David. Yet he still found Sussman’s counsel to be invaluable. He just described it as two men having a quality conversation “about what a remarkable community this is and what a privilege it is to be the rabbi there,” David said.
David, his wife Lisa and their three children moved to Jenkintown in June. He chuckled when he described the transition as “brutal,” with “a lot of boxes, time and schlepping.”
Now though, he “can’t wait to start,” he said.
The new rabbi plans on spending his first several months getting “slowly, slowly acclimated to this wonderful community and opportunity.” He knows that he probably does not need to change much. But he does still have a couple of ideas based on his conversations with Sussman.
David wants KI’s 10th-grade program to bring in speakers from different faiths. The rabbi also hopes to start an 11th- and 12th-grade program in which he takes students out to four to six dinners a year so they can talk about life.
“He acknowledged that coming off of COVID, this is an area that’s going to need attention,” David said of Sussman. “Our kids got out of practice of being in the synagogue and being amongst their friends in the Jewish community.” JE