Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg was, as she put it, “a bad Conservative Jew” growing up. She knew she was supposed to keep kosher and the Sabbath; she just didn’t. At the same time, she still wanted to practice her religion.
So as an adult, she left her “Conservadox” synagogue and went to a service at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. When Kapnek Rosenberg walked in with her husband, someone came up to them and asked if they wanted to play a part in the service.
They didn’t know how to respond. They had never been asked such a question before.
But after a moment of hesitation, the wife and husband said they wanted to open the ark. And, in doing so, they opened the door to their journey into Reconstructionist Judaism.
It continues today at Or Hadash, the Philadelphia area’s first Reconstructionist congregation, which started in 1983. Kapnek Rosenberg’s husband has since died, but she remains a member at the synagogue they helped found after they opened the ark that night.
Kapnek Rosenberg said they became part of the group of six founding families because they believed in Judaism’s youngest denomination. They liked how, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, explained it, the past had a vote, but not a veto. In other words, you needed to understand Jewish history and commentary, but you were also free to make the religion work for you in your modern community.
“I knew I could be a good Reconstructionist Jew,” Kapnek Rosenberg said.
Other Jews of the time must have agreed. Over the next three decades, Or Hadash’s congregation grew to include more than 100 and, eventually, more than 200 families.
The synagogue emerged as an offshoot of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. But in 1989, it separated itself from the college to show that the new denomination could survive.
Going into its 40th year, the Fort Washington synagogue maintains a community of about 150 member units. That number increased slightly during the pandemic, according to Rabbi Alanna Sklover. Plus, in the past few years, the temple’s religious school grew from about 35 students to more than 50.
Carol Mueller Bell, who joined in 1994, was attracted to the temple’s open and democratic nature. She’s now in her 28th year as a member because the synagogue remains both open and democratic.
“If you have an idea and can articulate it, others will join with you,” she said. “We’re a very alive congregation.”
Or Hadash has one full-time employee in Sklover. It also has part-time roles for an administrative staff member, an education director and a bookkeeper. Outside of those positions, the temple is, as President Barrie Mittica described it, a “lay-led congregation.”
Task forces of congregants drive new initiatives, like after the Black Lives Matter protest movement in 2020 when members wanted to “see how they could affect change,” Mittica said. An educational steering committee made up mostly of parents helps guide school policy. A variety of family clubs, like the hiking club and the poker club, are just outgrowths of member interests.
Recently, two b’nai mitzvah students asked Mittica if they could start a theater games group for a handful of 11-13-year-olds. The president said “yes” on one condition: It had to be led by a couple of adults in the room. Two high school seniors now lead the group.
“We are creating space for people to explore and manifest their authentic selves,” Sklover said. “And to bring those selves into the community.”
The rabbi became Or Hadash’s spiritual leader in 2019, replacing Joshua Waxman, who served for 15 years. She has not had trouble fitting in because, despite being the temple’s only full-time employee and official leader, she prefers its open and democratic process.
“I would rather work with someone on a new initiative than come up with it and implement it myself,” Sklover said. “That’s the through line from the founding of Or Hadash with six families to now. That is still a core part of our character.”
When Or Hadash was founded, those six families decided to cap the congregation at 100 members, according to Kapnek Rosenberg. They wanted everybody to know everybody, she explained. But if they somehow got to 85, they agreed to at least discuss lifting the cap.
As word spread through social circles and Jewish Exponent ads, they got to 85, and then 100. And they decided that they didn’t want to turn anybody away.
“We were mindful of the idea of wanting to grow but keep that small feeling, that community feeling,” Kapnek Rosenberg said. “It’s 40 years later and I think that’s still how Or Hadash is.” JE