After a Hiatus, Jewish Life Returns to West Philly

By Jordana Horn

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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Synagogues used to be a common sight in the historically Jewish neighborhood of West Philadelphia. But when congregation Kol Tzedek opened its doors recently, it was the first time that a synagogue had operated in the neighborhood in more than a decade.

West Philadelphia was once a stronghold. Jewish life flourished there until the 1960s, when families began their informal exodus from the city to the suburbs of the Main Line, where kosher restaurants and Jewish centers proliferate to this day. In the meantime, the West Philadelphia Jewish community was brought to a virtual standstill, with the last non-University of Pennsylvania-affiliated synagogue shutting its doors more than 10 years ago.

But, as has happened on New York’s Lower East Side, things have a way of coming full circle. In recent years, reasonably-priced real estate and reinvigorated public schools have drawn a growing number of Jewish families back into the area. Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in suburban Philadelphia, imagined that these new Jewish families — and older ones, as well — would want to find a synagogue they could call home.

“There had not been a synagogue in West Philadelphia, and the demographics were hinting that one was possible,” Grabelle Herrmann said. “I sensed that a new synagogue in West Philly would need to be progressive in its orientation and approach, intellectually stimulating for adults as well as children, and inclusive of interfaith families. What a perfect place for a Reconstructionist community.”

So Grabelle Herrmann began cold-calling families in the neighborhood. “I would go to people’s houses, meet for coffee, whatever they were willing to do, in order to shmooze with them about the possibility of a synagogue in West Philadelphia,” she said.

This past holiday season, in an unintentional re-creation of the Hanukkah story, longtime West Philly resident Norman Ellman proverbially and literally passed the torch. When the neighborhood building that once had housed his synagogue was converted into an African American church about 10 years ago, Ellman took home the Hanukkah menorah for safekeeping. As Grabelle Herrmann explained, when Ellman lent that menorah to her new congregation, Kol Tzedek was “in essence, dedicating [itself] to the possibility of a rebirth.”

Kol Tzedek, which literally means “voice of justice,” is made up of 40 households and does not yet have a building of its own. It holds services and Torah school studies at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community at 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue. Just getting off the ground, the congregation currently holds Friday night and Saturday morning services once a month. On January 13, Ben Filreis became the congregation’s first bar mitzvah.

Kol Tzedek fills a need in the West Philadelphia Jewish community that, congregation president Noga Newberg said, goes unmet by the University of Pennsylvania Hillel.

“Kol Tzedek welcomes families and people unaffiliated with Penn,” Newberg said. “We are also Reconstructionist, open to non-Jews and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. All of these characteristics make us unique as a synagogue in Philadelphia, especially in West Philadelphia. Penn specifically does not have a Reconstructionist minyan. I know, because I tried to start one!”

The congregation is by no means a garden-variety synagogue, as it actively seeks to draw previously affiliated and unaffiliated Jews alike out of their West Philadelphia homes and into the minyan mix.

“We’ve got all types of folks involved — younger single people, young families, gay, straight, older folks, younger folks, folks with darker skin and lighter skin,” said Kol Tzedek board member Kenneth Rosso. “Some of us are spiritual seekers, and some of us aren’t.”

Filreis’s father, Al Filreis, a University of Pennsylvania English professor, said that the congregation’s uniqueness was its main attraction for him and his family.

“The congregants are unbelievably diverse, in all imaginable ways. Discussions can take unexpected directions, but people are always tolerant, already interested in each other,” Filreis said. “Even in the middle of the most traditional parts of a service, there is a feel in the air of something new and fresh happening. I have been very moved by the services that I’ve attended. I never look at my watch.”

But the congregation is more than simply a collection of disparate Diasporans.

“With all of our differences, I think what will hold us together is that we’re committed to being Jewish in a meaningful way,” Rosso said. “Also, many of us are committed deeply to tikkun work here in the neighborhood and city-wide.”

The congregation is a member of a nonpartisan interfaith peace organization, and individual congregants have participated in peace marches and rallies together. Most recently, the congregation co-hosted a Hanukkah Klezmer Extravaganza with the Jewish Dialogue Group, which facilitates conversation among Jews on issues in Middle East politics.

“Kol Tzedek is dynamic, and I hope it will continue to push the boundaries of how a synagogue looks and sounds like,” Newberg said. “I hope we will always stay true to our name, and continue to pursue justice.

“I would like Kol Tzedek to grow into a learning community where members can come and explore Judaism, both ritually and textually, to stretch their own conceptions of spirituality, ethics and prayer.”

Jordana Horn Marinoff is a lawyer and writer living outside Philadelphia. She is at work on her first novel.

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