Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, a New York native whose tenure at Kol Tzedek begins in August, spoke with the Exponent shortly after his appointment was announced.
When word came that Kol Tzedek’s Rabbi Lauren Grabelle-Herrmann would be leaving Philly to take a job in New York, it was like a punch in the stomach — the kind that knocks the wind out of you.
After all, Grabelle-Herrmann had founded the thriving West Philadelphia Reconstructionist congregation from scratch, starting with just a simple chavurah in her apartment in 2002 and building it into the thriving community it is today, with more than 140 member families.
Congregants were happy for her — she was moving on to work at the Society for Jewish Advancement — but they were dizzied, too, by the seeming impossibility of ever finding a suitable replacement.
Rob Auritt, who chaired the search committee for Kol Tzedek’s new rabbi, said, “There is no way for us to replace Rabbi Lauren. She was our beloved and founding rabbi and was instrumental in building the shul to this point. In many ways she was the hub at the center of a lot of Kol Tzedek’s spokes. Her spiritual and organizational DNA is imprinted on the soul of our shul.”
Nonetheless, a replacement would have to be found — and fast.
“We found out about Rabbi Lauren’s move relatively late in the rabbi-hiring season,” Auritt said. “So we went with an interim rabbi, and at the end of the day we think that was wise, because it really gave us the chance to conceive of, and engage in, a thoughtful search process that was designed to solicit the opinions and participation of the whole community.”
Three finalists for the position spent a weekend at Kol Tzedek leading Shabbat services, running an adult education program and Havdalah and teaching KT’s Torah School kids on Sunday morning. “We created detailed online forms for members to fill out about each candidate,” Auritt said.
“Attendance at each weekend was very strong and we received a large volume of feedback.”
The overwhelming favorite was Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, director of the Boston-Area Jewish Education Program and part-time prison chaplain. The search committee was drawn to Fornari for many reasons, including, according to Auritt, his “singular ability to engage people of all levels of Jewish experience and previous participation in organized Judaism, people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions, and those committed to anti-racism and to a multiracial Jewish civilization.”
“Building an inclusive community was at the top of the list of priorities for the talents the new rabbi would bring,” Auritt said. The committee also felt that the fact that Fornari is transgender would be an asset to its diverse congregation. Janet Rauscher, a member of the board’s executive committee, said, “Kol Tzedek is a spiritual home to many LGBTQ and/or gender-non-conforming individuals, and that inclusivity is an important aspect of the synagogue’s identity. While Rabbi Ari Lev was selected as our next rabbi because of his skills, strengths and experience (not because of his identity), hiring a trans rabbi does reflect our community’s values and is a strong expression of our commitment to inclusive Judaism.” Responses from congregants have been positive, confirming Rauscher’s sense that “the appointment of a trans rabbi is a powerful statement of welcome.”
Fornari, a New York native whose tenure begins in August, spoke with the Exponent shortly after his appointment was announced.
What was your upbringing like?
I grew up in what I like to call an observant Reform home, which means that Judaism was a really significant part of my childhood and my family life and it was how my family made meaning and built community and participated in justice work.
When did you know you wanted to be a rabbi?
I felt a really strong call to be a rabbi from the time I was like 10 or 11. I can’t even explain it. I will say that I trace some of my roots to the fact that one of the only out queer people I knew as a young person was my rabbi. My synagogue was really one of the only places in my world where I had queer role models. So I really am grateful for that.
Do you plan to continue prison ministry?
Prison ministry is at the core of some of my heart’s work. For incarcerated people who are Jewish, they really struggle when they come out to find a Jewish community or synagogue that feels comfortable and welcoming. One of my hopes is to cultivate a community at Kol Tzedek where we are providing support and visits and holiday observance opportunities for people who are incarcerated. And I also want to let it become known that Kol Tzedek is a place where people getting out of prison can be welcome and be connected to Jewish community and to have that as a source of support in their transition.
Do you feel a responsibility to represent transgender people given that you’re often described as a “trans rabbi”?
I don’t feel a responsibility to represent any one aspect of my identity. But I also know that being trans and genderqueer in 2016 is a significant part of who I am. It’s no small thing that I’m a transmasculine white person in this moment, and how different so many experiences are for trans women of color in this moment. In that way, I don’t take the privilege that I’m afforded for granted. … But it’s certainly not all of who I am as a rabbi.
How do you plan to handle congregants who may not be comfortable with your identity?
I really believe that strength comes from moving through and across our differences and being willing to hold fear and loss and complexity and see our humanity through all of that. I want to cultivate what I’m calling the big tent but also the big heart of Kol Tzedek. How we approach our internalized fears and our assumptions and misperceptions about one another is evolving, and I hope it’s something we’ll grow through together at Kol Tzedek.
What most excites you about this opportunity with Kol Tzedek?
I’m so excited about Kol Tzedek because I see it as a place where there is thinking interpersonally and systemically about racism and how to be both politically active and spiritually alive. I knew going in that justice was a focus at Kol Tzedek and that’s part of what drew me to it. At the heart of it I see Kol Tzedek as a place where we can live into our personal and collective healing and transformation and liberation. I believe we are all made up of tremendously complex and beautiful stories and I’m excited to uncover and weave them together.