Brian Hanck has been a member of Congregation Kol Emet for 15 years.
He had his three daughters go through preschool and get bat mitzvahed at the Reconstructionist temple; he’s still a member with his wife, Sherry Hanck, even though their girls are older now; he even said that many of his good friends come from his synagogue life.
Yet Hanck is not Jewish.
The Yardley resident grew up Lutheran and, while he doesn’t practice Christianity today, he never converted to Judaism, either. But at Kol Emet, no one asks.
“It’s just a welcoming community,” he said.
That culture is one that Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy, Kol Emet’s spiritual leader since 2014, and President Jill Gordon, a congregant since 2001, are proud to have cultivated along with hundreds of other members over the years.
Boswell-Levy and Gordon grew up in the Reform tradition. Both women switched to the Reconstructionist denomination as adults due to its openness and emphasis on democratic decision-making. Kol Emet gives members a say in how committees work and in larger community decisions.
The Yardley institution counts about 185 individuals and families in its membership, according to Gordon. That’s an increase of about 10 congregants from Boswell-Levy’s first year in 2014.
“It’s possibly more reflective of Judaism today,” Gordon said of the Reconstructionist approach. “It offers a lot of flexibility about how to be Jewish.”
The rabbi agrees with her president; there are many ways to be Jewish.
Some Jews prefer to focus on tikkun olam, or healing the world, others about going to services and still others about the religion’s philosophy and history. Some, though, are just searching for community.
Kol Emet tries to offer all of those things, according to Boswell-Levy.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the father of the Reconstructionist movement, believed that Judaism “was the evolving civilization of the Jewish people,” the Kol Emet rabbi said. It’s “of the Jewish people, by the Jewish people,” she added.
Boswell-Levy sees her congregation as part of that evolving civilization, as well as a community of and by its members.
“There’s less emphasis on what you believe and more about being part of a people,” she concluded.
That approach has been successful, too.
Kol Emet is now a 40-year-old synagogue with an increasing congregation. Twenty-six new families joined in the past year alone, Boswell-Levy said.
It also has a religious school program with 82 students and a preschool program with 72 kids, 60% of whom are not Jewish. The rabbi calls those enrollment numbers “big for our size.”
For those reasons, Boswell-Levy and Gordon are confident in the temple’s future. In just the past few years, they’ve welcomed new members in their 80s and new members who just married.
Come June, the rabbi will officiate the wedding of a same-sex, interfaith, interracial couple. The pair started attending services at Kol Emet in 2019, and their relationship with Boswell-Levy grew from there.
“We’re going to see that increasingly,” she said of the couple’s diverse identity.
To continue to live its values and perhaps attract more young people, Kol Emet plans to maintain its focus on issues of the day.
After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the temple started an “undoing racism” group, as Boswell-Levy described it. At a recent event, Kol Emet welcomed Rabbi Sandra Lawson, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the national Reconstructionist movement.
The synagogue also plans to host a community-wide conversation, including congregants and other Yardley residents, about transitioning the township to more sustainable practices.
“What if Yardley could transition to a more sustainable, connected and flourishing community?” asked Boswell-Levy, outlining the event’s core theme.
In addition, a successful $650,000 capital campaign should allow the temple to replace its roof, buy a new Torah and build an “outdoor contemplative space,” as the rabbi called it.
“We saw some nice growth this year,” Gordon said. “That’s reason to be hopeful.”
Longtime members, like Hanck and others, want prospective members to know that Kol Emet is true to its word.
Morrisville resident Julie Asplen joined Kol Emet in 1995.
Her son has autism, but synagogue educators never had an issue teaching to his specifications. Her daughter couldn’t attend confirmation classes because she was too busy with other activities, but since she wanted to, she was able to get a curriculum she could complete from home.
Kol Emet Education Director Carrie Shames-Walinsky created it for her.
“It’s all these things that make me want to help it continue so it’ll be there for the future,” Asplen said of the synagogue. “L’dor v’dor.” JE
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