Mishkan Shalom is a place that wears many hats (kippot?).
The building that was originally a factory more than 150 years ago has since become home to the synagogue for about 15 of its 28-year existence.
But within that time, the Reconstructionist synagogue has opened its doors to many others in the Philadelphia community.
It once accommodated space for a recovery center for children, then a spot as an interfaith center. The church still fills Mishkan Shalom’s pews with music each Sunday while children from the synagogue learn in Hebrew school.
And now during the weekdays, C.B. Community Schools will fill the second-floor hall.
Roberta Trombetta founded the institution as a charter school for children who have been abused or who suffer from trauma, but it is now in its second year as a private school.
The previous location on East Haines Street in West Oak Lane was rather uninviting.
“We were in a basement in West Oak Lane, and I really wanted to get windows for the kids,” she added.
So when the space at Mishkan Shalom became available, she and others from the school met with board members from the congregation and its building and aesthetics committee to put the move into action just this past June.
Trombetta, who is not Jewish, knew this move would be a great one because she was always a part of the Jewish community growing up in Overbrook Park.
Her father purposefully moved there, because he thought “Jewish people knew how to educate their kids. And for an Italian, who most kids got sent to Catholic school, we all went to public school. We grew up pretty Jewish,” she laughed.
About 70 high-schoolers fill the classrooms on the long hallway of the second floor. With seven content classrooms, the space is small yet doesn’t feel crowded.
The floor also has a cafeteria-style space where breakfast and lunch are provided, as well as snacks throughout the day.
They also borrow the social hall downstairs and the outdoor amphitheater area with a rock formation and garden that they sometimes use for classes or lunch.
Each student receives a $20,000 scholarship, which covers a lot of the expenses for administration.
To keep the class sizes small — about one teacher to 12 students or less — they need many teachers and a lot of administrative support. The school employs a social worker, guidance counselor, director of student services and a nurse, all full time.
“Our kids have a lot of needs, so we have to be responsive in the moment to that stuff,” said Trombetta, a lawyer who has worked in child welfare for 20 years. “Every kid is on a different level, so there’s a lot of differentiation that happens in the classroom. Some kids have been out of school for a long time, some kids have been undereducated, so there’s a lot of specialized instruction within a competency-based framework.”
But it’s been working.
Ten of 11 eligible students graduated last year. Their individually framed graduation portraits line one wall of the hallway.
“What’s really cool is that we have this real progressive synagogue who believes in social justice that welcomes a school that has the hardest to educate, mostly black kids and has welcomed us with open arms,” Trombetta said. “And the other cool thing is we have a Muslim teacher, we have many Muslim kids, and so being in a synagogue, we’ve had a lot of conversations about it. And then there’s also a Christian church here on Sundays — it all comes together.
“What we teach kids about is peace, being peaceful. And the whole fact that [Mishkan Shalom] means ‘sanctuary of peace’ was pretty cool.”
The school has been in session for about three weeks now, but the new location has already made an impact.
Although many of the students tend to miss two-thirds of class time due to the strain of their home lives, it is clear that they deeply care about this place.
The students care and ack-nowledge and respect the space they’re in, which is evident by the echoes of kids shouting out answers to their teachers with cheers and laughter.
And for those who do show up to 85 percent or more school days, they get recognized on a bulletin board in the hall to see their progress.
“First it was hard to get to, to find it, but back here they feel safe, and the light, the high ceilings and the holiness of the place — we really explained the spiritual part of this, and having the kids understand that we are basically living in a house of a religion and a whole body of folks that believe in the spiritualness of this place, there’s a respect level,” Trombetta added. “We are finding less trash on the ground and the cursing … is not as pronounced. Many of them have been exposed to churches or mosques in their lives, but there’s an interesting thing that’s happening about being in this building.
“It feels like it dignifies the kids. It gives them dignity to be in a space that is like you’re in a private school.”
Rabbi Shawn Zevit at Mishkan Shalom said the school is a great addition.
“We look for partners who share a certain value set in the world,” he said. “So our growing diversity and the diversity of the school itself is one of the reasons we were very excited.”
The congregation is rather diverse as well. Many congregants — Mishkan Shalom has about 210 households — are in interfaith relationships; some are LGBTQ, biracial or multiracial.
“It’s not just a project. For me, it’s our lived reality. What does it mean to be Jewish in this day and age and to live one’s Jewish life as well as be part of the larger world?” Zevit questioned.
Bringing communities to-gether has always been a theme for the congregation. On the third floor of the building lies the Heschel-King exhibit, featuring historical photos of “Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who strove to integrate prayer and social justice,” the marker read.
“We didn’t pull that out because the school is here,” Zevit said.“That’s just a part of who we are.”
He hopes the presence of the school will deepen that message.
The root of the Hebrew word “shalom” means “whole,” Zevit continued, and “you can get to a place of peace, but you need to get to that through everyone feeling whole — feeling safe and secure.”
“I hope it will enhance and challenge all of us in terms of our thinking,” he added. “It’s one thing to work on an idea. It’s another thing to live in relationship with people. So I hope it makes us look at how do we build real relationships with each other, not just sitting at a table around an issue or interfaith but the day-to-day. That’s what I feel here is a real opportunity.”
Synagogue members plan on getting involved with the school as well through mentoring or other forms of volunteering, which Trombetta said is important because often the kids leave care at 18 without “a real person connected to them.”
“Mishkan Shalom feels honored and excited to welcome the children of C.B. Community Schools into our community so that together we can continue this journey of healing,” wrote David Piver, immediate past president of Mishkan Shalom. “Clearly this development, and the potential to positively impact so many lives, is in line with the vision and hope embodied in tikkun olam.”
“I really think it is about peace and finding a home. We’ve been so welcomed by the whole congregation,” Trombetta said. “When you’re working with kids who are so vulnerable and really invisible to much of society, to be welcomed and to be loved in a place that’s beautiful and dignifies who they are is really special.
“It’s going to be a nice start for us and to really set down roots here.”
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