Mishkan Shalom Continues to Change With the Times

Congregants stand in a large field surrounded by trees.
Mishkan Shalom’s congregation at an outdoor service | Courtesy of Jean Brody

Mishkan Shalom Rabbi Shawn Zevit, in recent years, was reminded of the quote by poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes: “We were made for these times.”

For his High Holiday d’var Torah, Zevit explored the phrase and flipped it on its head, saying to his congregants, “We are being remade by these times.”

“We’re not isolated; no person is an island in that way. I’ve been changed,” Zevit said. “I talked about the ‘oy and the joy’ of mortality…I think the ‘oys and joys’ are something that a progressive and inclusive Jewish life leaves room for.”

Though Zevit cites the pandemic and political landscape as defining moments for the community and world, Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manayunk-Roxborough, has always reckoned with the topics of the day since its 1988 founding.

Now home to about 225 households and 4450 members, Mishkan Shalom continues to be guided by the three principles established in its creation: Torah, study; avodah, prayer; and g’milut hasadim/tikkun olam — acts of caring and repair of the world. 

In addition to weekly services, a b’nai mitzvah program and a growing religious school, Mishkan Shalom supports dozens of political interests of its congregants: There are committees for immigration and working rights, an interfaith peace walk and conversations about Israel and Palestine. The synagogue also has community liaisons that are part of the Philadelphia Jewish LGBTQ consortium JProud, as well as the Romero Interfaith Center, according to board president Jean Brody.

“It’s a community of people who really are very thoughtful about what they do,” said congregant Keely McCarthy Newman, who organized the synagogue’s recent five-year fundraising project alongside Irv Ackelsberg, David Piver and campaign manager Gari Weilbacher. “It’s a community of activists, and even the people who aren’t regularly activists are very clear of how their actions affect others, and it’s such an intentional, kind group of people.”

Mishkan Shalom emerged as a spiritual community at a time when synagogues were not yet addressing or welcoming conversation about LGBT Jews, interfaith and interracial marriages or discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the 1980s, Mishkan Shalom founding member Carol Towarnicky and her husband Ron Goldwyn found themselves without a spiritual home. They joined a couple of synagogues that aligned some parts of their Jewish and political identities but had yet to find a completely welcoming and fulfilling space.

“I once said to somebody, ‘We know what we want; we just don’t know whether it exists,’” Towarnicky said. “And it turned out that we had to help found it.”

The summer of 1988 was spent gathering stray members of synagogues that Towarnicky and Goldwyn had once belonged to and creating committees to discuss the logistics of including a religious school as part of a new congregation, as well as how to build a community based on a statement of principles. Founding Rabbi Brian Walt had a Torah from London, that had been rescued from the Holocaust, sent to the congregation a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah.

The congregation had its first official service on Rosh Hashanah in 1988 at Swarthmore Friends Meeting.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit is a white man with grey hair and goatee strumming a guitar and singing, surrounded by man dancing.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit (center) leads a Jewish men’s retreat. | Courtesy of Jean Brody

“It was quite an amazing event where people were asked to take their tallitot and put them over their heads so that there was like a whole canopy of like 400 or so 500 people … and we called the congregation into being,” Towarnicky said.

The congregation floated around the city and Philadelphia suburbs for years until 2002, when they found their now-home in a factory-turned-furniture warehouse. After spending years keeping their arc and Torah in Methodist and Quaker meeting spaces, Miskhan Shalom finally had a place to call home.

In the past 20 years, the synagogue has come full circle with its building, which now also contains the office for the building management company, a space a nearby church rents out and for C.B. Community School, which provides education for teenagers in the foster care system.

Mishkan Shalom recently completed a five-year fundraising project of $1 million for the building, allowing it to refinance its mortgage, install a new roof and create a new position of director of synagogue operations, fulfilled by Rebecca Phillips. One of Phillips’ first tasks in her position was to connect the several congregants who suggested the installation of solar panels on the building’s new roof.

According to Newman, 132 families contributed to the campaign, which she said was significant for the congregation.

“It’s a young synagogue, so we don’t have legacy donors,” Newman said. “We don’t have, until very recently, second-generation Mishkan-ers.”

But as synagogue leaders look to the future, there’s a real sense of optimism and pride in the community: They have financial stability and have had modest membership growth since the pandemic. Though they’ve weathered the challenges of the pandemic and experienced personal hardships, there’s always been a will to adapt.

“We’ve found a way of thriving,” Zevit said.

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