Mishkan Shalom was founded with the intention of providing exactly what its Hebrew name declares – a ‘sanctuary of peace’ for individuals from diverse backgrounds to join together as a unified community.
The congregation originally formed in 1988 following a split from another Reconstructionist Jewish community in Media, Pa. due to political disagreements regarding the state of Israel. Since then, Mishkan has committed itself to pursuing social justice and creating an inclusive, dialogue-focused atmosphere in which congregants are free to debate about difficult issues. For example, the synagogue decided to take a public stance of opposition to the war in Iraq in 2003 following a dialogic community process.
“We have a commitment to a larger community,” said lead Rabbi Shawn Zevit who joined the synagogue about a year ago. “We make decisions from a communal process that we try to engage, learn and study and develop our policies by involving as many people as possible.”
The larger community Zevit referred to is actually comprised of several distinct, yet overlapping arenas. The planet, Philadelphia, the Northwest neighborhood and humankind are all groups Mishkan Shalom aims to include and serve in various ways. Mishkan’s website proudly affirms itself as a welcoming haven for Jewish diversity in “observance, faith, family structure, ethnicity, political viewpoints, income and where members live.”
For more than 20 years, part-time Rabbi Yael Levy, who was not available for comment, has served as a beacon for the outward facing spirituality Mishkan aims to embody.
Recently named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Jews” by The Jewish Daily Forward, Levy has been recognized for her innovative program, “A Way In,” which provides a path into Judaism by combining Jewish language and tradition, the teachings of medieval mystics and adaptations of Buddhist mindfulness techniques.
For example, Levy tailored the second night of traditionally hectic and chatter-filled Rosh Hashana services to align with mindfulness practices.
“Our aim is to surround the prayers with a lot of silence,” Levy explained in a 2011 video, “so we can let the prayers sink into us so that we can reflect on, ‘What does this mean to me?’ ‘What does this say to me?’ and ‘How is this calling me forward?'”
Levy’s influence as a leader for Jewish inclusiveness extends into the realm of activism, specifically within the LGBTQ community.
Though homosexual acts are technically forbidden by traditional Jewish law, Reconstructionism is founded on a commitment to the adaptation of Judaism for contemporary times.
“Mishkan was the first synagogue to welcome lesbian and gay members in the 1980s,” stated Temple University professor of religion Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, a founding member who has since departed from the congregation.
Levy’s influence has instilled queer equality as an important value for multiple generations of the synagogue’s youth. Jordan Cooper, who was bat mitzvahed at Mishkan in 2004, described Levy’s impact on her as a role model as profound.
“Growing up with a rabbi who I very much looked up to asa female leader, who also identified proudly as a lesbian gave me an image of the Jewish community as a place that was not only open and accepting, but also empowering,” Cooper said.
Today, Mishkan’s youth remain inspired by Levy and committed to LGBTQ rights. The day before marriage equality was declared in Pennsylvania, this past spring, one young bat mitzvah produced a series of chalk drawings for marriage equality on the synagogue driveway.
“We still say to her, ‘you tipped the balance,'” said Zevit of Levy.
Congregants are encouraged to engage in a wide variety of service programs. Mishkan works with organizations including Good Schools Pennsylvania, the Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation, Jobs with Justice, The Neighborhood Interfaith Movement and the Northwest Interfaith Hospitality Network to fulfill its foundational commitment to healing what is broken on a global scale by participating on the local and regional levels.
Such healing involves ‘walking the talk’ on a daily basis. Mishkan implements sustainable practices year-round in its permanent meeting space, a 144 year old renovated stone textile mill in Roxborough.
In 2004, the building received an Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star award for energy efficiency following an extensive upgrade. After replacing everything from the heating and lighting systems to the window panes and office equipment, Mishkan has been able to save 15,400 kWh of electricity, 1,900 therms of natural gas and prevent 47,500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
The community at Mishkan Shalom has evolved continuously over the course of its history, transitioning through a variety of spiritual leaders, meeting spaces, priorities and congregants. Despite so much change, or perhaps because of it, Mishkan remains inspired by its founding principles of inclusiveness and process-riven community building.
“Certainly, things have changed over time but we were, at our foundation, a real haven for people with a progressive Jewish attitude,” said Rabbi Zevit. “We take that to our hearts.”
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– Text, photos and video by Tori Marchiony and Alison Vayne.