West Philadelphia: A Synagogue Reconstructs a Community


As the Jewish tradition teaches, “kol avarim zeh lazeh,” or “we are all responsible for each other.”  At Kol Tzedek, the Reconstructionist Synagogue in West Philadelphia, a Jewish community was built on the foundation of prayer, education, spirituality and activism.

Kol Tzedek began when a group of Jewish people in West Philadelphia came together seeking a community with which to pray and practice Judaism.

Reconstructionism embraces tradition but views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization.

This group of people started what is known as a “havurah,” or a friendship circle that met monthly.  The havurah began with a Hanukkah celebration in December 2004 that 150 people attended.  This demonstrated to the original members the need in the community for a new facility in which people could gather, pray, learn, celebrate and mourn.

The Reconstructionist Synagogue set up its first board of directors in February 2005. Today there are about 70 households that make up the Kol Tzedek congregation.

Reconstructionism, which began in America in the 1920s into the 1940s,  views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization and involves keeping traditions and language but making modern changes to meet today’s free thinking progressive Jews.

“Instead of blessing just Israel, we are blessing the world,” said Michael Carr, 59, of Center City.  “It is a more modern concept of God.”

Kol Tzedek, meaning “Voice of Justice,” was chosen as the name for this progressive synagogue by its initial members.  The congregation consists of people with a wide variety of beliefs, including those with traditional Jewish backgrounds and those with no formal backgrounds in Judaism at all.

What is appealing to those at Kol Tzedek and in the Reconstructionist movement is that there is a greater sense of equality.  Though it is encouraged, it is not necessary for non-Jews to convert. Reconstructionism does not require that a person be Jewish in order to be a part of a congregation.

Couples in which one spouse is Jewish and the other is not are more common in this progressive movement. There is also greater sense of equality among men and women.  More than ever before, a larger number of females are becoming rabbis. Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is the female rabbi at Kol Tzedek.  She was among the group of original members who founded this West Philadelphia synagogue.

This progressive form of Judaism is also more accepting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.

“About half of our congregation consists of inner-married couples,” said Nina Huizinga, 70, of West Philadelphia.  “And we see a lot of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender within our congregation as well.”

Kol Tzedek seeks to establish a community in which members of its congregation gather, pray, learn celebrate and mourn.

As far as the social aspects of the congregation are concerned, Kol Tzedek works hard on being ecologically friendly and getting involved in the local community.  When it comes to safety and security within the community, members of Kol Tzedek said they haven’t experienced any problems.

“We don’t have problems because as a congregation we get along well with other congregations and with the community” said Carr.

Jay Sand, 37, of West Philadelphia, said the surrounding community is quite diverse.  “We don’t feel like we’re the minority here,” he said.  “Our congregation feels intimate, but not sparse.”

He said that Kol Tzedek is well recognized within the West Philadelphia area because it shares its space at the Calvary Temple on 48th and Baltimore streets with other groups and congregations.

“The Methodist congregation could not support the Calvary Temple alone,” said Carr. “So the congregations joined together and with help from the United Methodist Church and some grants, the Calvary Temple was kept open and dozens of groups benefit from its use.

This West Philadelphia synagogue holds monthly Shabbat Mishpocha (family) service on the first Saturday of every month and a regular Shabbat service on the third Saturday every month with a brunch after the service.  There is a service called the Kol Tehilla, which is done four times a year to help usher in Shabbat.  The next Kol Tehilla Service will be held on Friday, Feb. 26.

Kol Tzedek also participates in community events and plans events within the community and will participate in the upcoming LimmudPhilly event March 6-7  at the Gershman Y.

Members of the congregation gather for brunch following the Saturday Shabbat service.

LimmudPhilly is for beginners in Judaism, spiritual seekers, Yiddish devotees and even advanced Judaic scholars.  There will be interactive sessions on arts and culture, contemporary Jewish life, text study and history with music programs, film, workshops and lectures.

The last remaining synagogue in the West Philadelphia area had closed its doors in the 1980s because the congregation was too small to support the synagogue.  It had been 10 years since actively Jewish people in West Philadelphia had any sense of belonging to a Jewish community.

Today, the core of Kol Tzedek’s congregation is from the West Philadelphia area, although in recent years Kol Tzedek is seeing members coming from all across Philadelphia and surrounding Philadelphia suburbs.

1 Comment

  1. Actually, the saying is “kol yisrael arevim ze laze” or, “all of israel is responsible/watches for each other.”

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