The Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester began a new rabbi search in September 2022. There were dozens of candidates, according to Jim Tischler, the chair of the rabbinic search committee.
Yet one stood out: Sam Yolen. He’s a 33-year-old millennial who wears a beret and brings his dog, a miniature poodle named Stella, to the office. Yolen is a graduate of the Academy of Jewish Religion, an unaffiliated seminary.
Before coming to Kesher Israel, he spent five years leading Congregation Beth Israel in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. While there, he added more music to the services. And, as Tischler explained, “he created programs and activities that enabled them to feel the spirit of Judaism.”
Kesher Israel, a once Orthodox, then Conservative and now unaffiliated community, wanted to feel that spirit again, too. The 200-plus members were coming out of COVID and years of mostly virtual gatherings. Yolen became the choice in December and started on Aug. 15.
“They’re at a place where they’re ready to embrace innovation without compromising tradition,” Yolen said. “And they’re looking for youthful energy.”
Yolen tried to bring that youthful energy to Lebanon. But he also recognized that Beth Israel had “a sunset,” he said. By the end of the rabbi’s time there, the synagogue had 80 members.
Bethlehem Steel closed its plant in Lebanon in 1985, according to The Lebanon Daily News. The Jewish community largely left with it, according to Yolen.
“What’s left is a handful of doctors and lawyers,” the rabbi said. “There’s not a lot of kids or grandkids who are sticking around.”
All of this was true before Yolen arrived. But the rabbi appreciated that the congregation had raised money in the 1990s, put it in the stock market and grown it enough to pay him full time.
When he started in 2018, he tried “a lot of really innovative things,” he said. He added music to Friday night services. He oversaw conversions. He registered as a Moishe House host to organize gatherings for Jews in their 20s and 30s.
But “none of this really happened because coronavirus knocked the wind from everyone’s sails,” Yolen said. The community also “lost people due to sickness.”
“And everyone wanted to just clam up,” he said.
Older members would talk about “walking together down Chestnut Street to the synagogue,” Yolen recalled.
“It was like everyone was family and it was a beautiful enclave,” he said.
By the end, Yolen was doing 10 funerals a year. He started looking for a new position.
When the rabbi visited Kesher Israel, he saw the long building on a tree-lined property with a big parking lot. He learned that the congregation had young families, older families, septuagenarians, octogenarians and even nonagenarians. The rabbi was informed that the synagogue had a preschool with more than 180 kids and a religious school with more than 70 students. And West Chester and its surrounding towns in Chester County still had plenty of Jews. They were doctors, lawyers, teachers and coders.
Yolen came for his visit in December and started making birthday calls to congregants in March.
“That went a long way for him when he came here and started meeting people face to face,” said Lannie Hulnick, the synagogue’s executive director.
Since starting in August, Yolen has greeted students at the door as they walk in for religious school. He has introduced “rabbi bucks” to kids who do mitzvot. If they earn enough, they get a pizza party with the rabbi.
After Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Yolen brought a group of members to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Israel rally in Center City. Days later, he took congregants to a vigil for Israel at West Chester University.
At Shabbat services, Yolen is playing instruments. During High Holiday services, he got congregants to act out the story of Abraham and Isaac. On Oct. 28, he hosted a discussion after Havdalah about what it’s like to live through this moment in Jewish life.
“It’s done in a way that’s engaging to members,” Tischler said.
If you drive to Kesher Israel on Pottstown Pike, you will see the sign for the synagogue. Below the shul’s name, it says mazel tov to the latest bar mitzvah boy. Below that, it says “We Stand with Israel.”
“There’s a reality of holding joy, a bar mitzvah, a wedding, a baby naming, and sorrow, which is that our nation is at war,” Yolen said.