Religious Life






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Publication: Jewish Exponent
Author: Sacharow, Fredda
Date published: May 15, 2012

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If you were a Jew in Philadelphia during the latter half of the 19th century, one of an iestimated 12,000 members of the tribe, your synagogue of choice was either a Reform or an Orthodox congregation.

The Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, the independent rninyanim, the popularity of the do-it-yourself brand of chavurot - all remained in the near or distant future.

Counting women toward a minyan? Women rabbis? Gays and lesbians in the pulpit? You'd have had more luck finding a croissant on a seder table.

The last 125 years have seen enormous demographic and societal changes in religious life, which have both shaped and mirrored the way Jewish Philadelphia worships.

Two venerable synagogues - Congregation Rodeph Shalom and Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel - were already thriving when the first Jewish Exponent rolled off the presses in 1887. A third, Mikveh Israel, was entering its second century.

Then came a tidal wave of immigration, as thousands upon thousands of Jews sought a new life across the ocean.

By and large, these were not wealthy people. As sociologists point out, the rich generally don't emigrate. Nor were they particularly religious; the pious didn't see America as a hotbed of Yiddishkeit. But they did need a place to attend High Holiday services, and to socialize with fellow Jews.

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Their need coincided with the early stirrings of Conservative Judaism in Philadelphia nurtured by the Italian-bom rabbi who was the chazzan of Mikveh Israel, Sabato Morais.

Morais was among the founders and early scholars of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which was created largely in response to what was seen by some as a problematic document of principles adopted by the Reform Movement in 1885 calling on Jews to adopt a more modem approach to their faith.

The Conservative movement, seen by many as a bridge between the Orthodox and Reform worlds, flourished in Philadelphia during the 20th century. Many of the large congregations still in existence today were founded in those early years: Temple Har Zion in 1922, Germantown Jewish Centre in 1936, Temple Beth Zion (now Beth Zion-Beth Israel) in 1946.

Congregation Adath Jeshurun, established in 1858, embraced Conservative Judaism as early as 1910, and became a founding member of the United Synagogue of America.

The Orthodox movement has flourished in various neighborhoods in the region, including Northeast Philadelphia, Elkins Park and the Main Line.

Chabad has grown exponentially, with thriving centers around the city and the far exurbs.

The Reconstructionist movement, youngest of the major streams of American Jewish life, also has firm roots in the Philadelphia area, which has been home to the Reconstmctionist Rabbinical College since its founding in 1968.

Originally housed in two brownstones on North Broad Street, RRC now enrolls approximately 80 future rabbis and scholars in a mansion in Wyncote.

In recent years, more and more area Jews have found their spirituality through small, independent prayer groups, most of them egalitarian, which stress a hands-on approach to Judaism. Taking their cue from the popular Jewish Catalogue books that made rituals accessible to all, these groups encourage communal davening and home observance.

Rabbis are also noticing an intriguing trend: Jews who fled by the thousands to the suburbs ringing Philadelphia now find Center City a more attractive place to settle and to raise children.

And one of those rabbis - Simeon J. Maslin, who led Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel for 17 years before retiring in 1997 - says he wishes his former synagogue had established a branch in Philadelphia proper, "because that's where I think the future of Judaism is."

Laying the Foundation

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Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin

In 1980, when Simeon J. Maslin became senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, it was all about the suburbs.

"All suburban congregations were thriving. We had Confirmation classes of 70 or 80 kids - it was the culmination of the suburban migration. I got in on the tail end of this great movement of people out to the suburbs," recalls Maslin.

More than three decades later, the migration has halted, and is even in the process of reversing itself, observes the 81-year-old former president of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis.

"Today, people are moving either further out into the exurbs or, more importantly, back into the city. We're seeing the start of congregations" in Center City "that would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago," he says.

Maslin is no stranger to the concept of relocation. He has held pulpits in New York, Curaçao and Chicago; served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; and now, in retirement, conducts Torah study and Shabbat and High Holiday services at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., where he and his wife maintain a summer home.

He's also volunteered his rabbinical services in such far-flung venues as South Africa, Australia and Singapore.

At Keneseth Israel, Maslin was both a stabilizing presence and an agent of change, steering the classically Reform congregation down a more traditional path.

"My predecessor, Dr. Bertram W. Korn, was beginning to move it more toward the center, but he died very suddenly. I continued to move it toward more traditionalism - wearing a kipah, wearing a tallit, using more Hebrew," Maslin says.

Today, in addition to lecturing and traveling, he's writing up a storm, including '...and turn it again," a compilation of essays on biblical verses. He and his wife, Judith Blumberg Maslin, are the grandparents of 10 - what he calls their own "beloved minyan."

Keeping the Faith

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OUR READERS REMEMBER

The Jewish Exponent has been part of my life since I began my own subscription in the early 1970s. My engagement and marriage announcements appeared there; many years later, so did the birth of my daughter. Sadly, along the way were too many obituaries of family and friends. The most moving connection was the response from Rabbi Sidney Greenberg when I wrote to him after a column he wrote. His weekly column years ago always contained points of interest. Rabbi Greenberg so appreciated my letter that he put it in his synagogue's weekly newsletter. My husband surprised me by buying a copy of the rabbi's book. He went to Temple Sinai and asked the rabbi to autograph the copy. As my daughter approaches her college graduation in the spring, I will probably put in an announcement. Hopefully, wedding and grandchild announcements someday will follow. I so appreciate the connection to my Jewish community through the Exponent.

Janice Jakubowitcz, Philadelphia, Pa.

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Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai

Few rabbis lead congregations that rank as "must-see" stops on tourists' agendas. Fewer still can count Benjamin Franklin among the contributors to their synagogue's original building fund.

For Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai, serving as spiritual leader of Congregation Mikveh Israel, one of the oldest synagogues in the United States and the oldest formal congregation in Philadelphia, is both blessing and challenge.

"It's a very big responsibility to be part of a synagogue that's also part of history," says Gabbai. "It's a burden we carry with pride, but it's still a burden. Everything that we say or do will go into the annals of history; every piece of correspondence I send out of my office will go into the archives of the congregation."

Those archives date from the first half of the 18th century, when the Sephardic congregation's earliest members included the revolutionary patriot Haym Solomon and the philanthropist Rebecca Gratz. Original minyanim took place in private homes; later, during the Revolutionary War, the congregation's population swelled as Jews from New York and other metro politan areas sought refuge from the British.

When Gabbai arrived on the scene in 1988, most members were elderly and attendance was poor. He quickly identified two goals: emphasizing the importance of his synagogue's 250 years in the community; and building a community emphasizing Torah study and shared meals.

"We cared about every single individual who came through our doors, and even those who didn't," Gabbai says. "What attracted a lot of young people - and older ones - was our Sephardi outlook on life. It's a fierce commitment to observance, with a very open-minded, nonjudgmental attitude of inclusiveness and joie de vivre."

As befits a clergyman raised in Egypt, son of a mother born in Italy and a father born in Baghdad, Gabbai leads a diverse community whose members run the spectrum of Judaism's various branches.

"Even though we're a Sephardi congregation in minhag [custom], a majority of our members have always been of Ashkenazi ancestry," Gabbai observes. "They feel at home here, and they've adopted the Sephardi customs when they're in the synagogue."

Gabbai believes the arc of history will find Mikveh Israel flourishing.

"If, after a long life, I'm no longer on the scene, this congregation will continue on the same path that started in 1740," he predicts. "No doubt it will still be alive and thriving when Moshiach comes and takes us back to our homeland."

Celebrating Judaism

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Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Someone obviously forgot to warn Lauren Grabelle Herrmann how risky it was to start a synagogue from scratch in the first decade of the new century, with members leaving established synagogues in droves and the economy a few short years from tanking.

Just as well. The newly minted rabbi might have had second thoughts about launching KoI Tzedek, now a thriving hub of Judaism in West Philadelphia, where the last remaining synagogue had closed its doors sometime in the 1980s.

"I was a student at the Reconstmctionist Rabbinical College when I moved into the area, which had been a vibrant Jewish community for many decades before I got there," Herrmann, 35, recalls.

Looking around, she saw a rebirth of sorts: a new elementary school being built, young families moving into the area rather than retreating to the suburbs.

With a couple of Jewish friends, Herrmann started what she calls a "lowkey" chavurah in one pal's apartment. Twenty people showed up to daven that day in 2002, and a monthly Friday night service was born. As word of mouth worked its magic, the chavurah transitioned into a full-fledged congregation, now almost 90 households strong.

Herrmann says she's been "happily surprised" by the trajectory.

"With every year we see growth - not huge, but steady," she says of KoI Tzedek, which meets in space rented from the Calvary Center for Community and Culture on South 48th Street. The congregation boasts a Hebrew School with 27 students, adult education programming and High Holidays services that draw at least 375 worshipers.

There's a decidedly young vibe to the Reconstmctionist congregation, whose website offers directions by bike as well as by public transit, car and foot. Not charging for that High Holiday attendance helps, as does having a rabbi who is just 35 and who peppers her conversations with words like "cool" and "neat."

A former president of the Rutgers Hillel, Herrmann believes Jewish life in general and Jewish life in the city in particular are undergoing a period of revitalization, and she's delighted to be part of it. She and her husband are raising their two small children to be city kids, and the religious leader identifies with the families who populate Kol Tzedek's membership rolls.

For the Cherry Hill native, the future of synagogues lies in providing a "warm and caring" environment "that's not the synagogue your parents grew up in."

1865: The first full-service Jewish medical facility in the city, Jewish Hospital, opens at 56th St. & Haverford Ave.

1867: Maimonides College becomes the first rabbinical school and theological seminary in the United States.

1881: The "Jewish Quarter," centered around Lombard and South Streets, becomes the locus of Jewish community life in Philadlephia, encompassing synagogues, schools, shops, housing and entertainment.

1882-1904: More than 41,000 Jewish immigrants arrive to call Philadelphia their new home.

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