Where We Worship

PHOTO: ELLEN CURRY Kol Tzedek's modern-day Hanukkah celebrations have a link to the Jewish West Philly of old: a menorah saved from the last congregation to leave in the '80s.
PHOTO: ELLEN CURRY Kol Tzedek's modern-day Hanukkah celebrations have a link to the Jewish West Philly of old: a menorah saved from the last congregation to leave in the '80s.
Posted: April 14, 2013

THREE DECADES after the last Jewish congregation in West Philly left for the Main Line, a new one is growing in a neighborhood that once held a vibrant Jewish community of synagogues, shops and, of course, bakeries.

Congregation Kol Tzedek's creation story goes back to the mid-2000s, when rabbi-in-training Lauren Grabelle Herrmann began talking up the idea of starting a congregation in the neighborhood.

"When I mentioned it, my neighbor on Farragut Street said, 'I have the menorah from the last synagogue in West Philadelphia.' " (That would be Congregation Beth Hamedrosh-Beth Jacob, which was a holdout into the '80s at 60th and Larchwood).

Flash-forward to 2013, and the start-up synagogue has 100 member families, a Hebrew school and a slate of monthly and holiday services. For Hanukkah, "we've lit that menorah every year for the last eight years," says Herrmann, now a full-fledged rabbi. "It's very special."

Who we are: Kol Tzedek is a reconstructionist synagogue - part of a modern, American-based branch of Judaism. (Its rabbinical college is in Wyncote.)

The ultra-inclusive West Philly congregation welcomes young, old, interfaith, gay and lesbian members and other "seekers." Membership dues are on a sliding scale starting at about $90 a year (up to $3,000). The rabbi lives in Spruce Hill with her husband - Wharton-trained Campus Philly founder Jon Herrmann - and their two children, ages 5 and 1.

Where we worship: Home base is the Calvary Center for Culture and Community at 48th and Baltimore, where Kol Tzedek shares space with three other congregations, including a Mennonite fellowship.

Its main monthly service is 10 a.m. to noon the third Saturday of each month. (Next on April 20.) A toddler-friendly family service is 10-11 a.m. the first Saturday. (Next on May 4).

What we believe: "Every human being, no matter what, is deserving of basic respect and understanding," Rabbi Herrmann says. In Hebrew, the concept is called B'tzelem Elohim. It comes from Genesis, where God is said to have created people "in the image of the divine" (the English translation).

Among the congregation's other core values are prayer, Torah study, welcoming guests and social justice. In Hebrew, Kol Tzedek means voice of justice.

Good works: One focus is an interfaith campaign called Power (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild). On April 21, 50 Kol Tzedek members will join an anticipated 3,000 Christians, Jews and Muslims at Deliverance Evangelistic Church for a public-policy rally addressing jobs, wages and schools.

The synagogue also packs nourishing "breakfast bags" for struggling households.

Big moral issue we're grappling with: "I would say, how do we be good people - be a wife, a child, a partner, a worker and do that really well - and also try to do good in the world?" says Rabbi Herrmann. "People struggle a lot with, how do you do that with this crazy life you're living?"

God is . . . "Love. It's impossible to say just one thing."

Congregational GPS: "It's a source of pride that we try to be part of the neighborhood, but good Judaism transcends geography," Rabbi Herrmann says. So along with some 50-somethings from West Philadelphia, the congregation draws lots of younger people - both single and married (often with young children) - from neighborhoods including Bella Vista and the Graduate Hospital area.

Congregational DNA: It's a spectacularly diverse crowd of worshippers. "We have families who have a multiracial makeup - both through marriage and adoption - and a ton of interfaith families," Rabbi Herrmann says. "Some of those overlap."

God moment: "Whenever someone shows up with a meal for someone who's had a baby or had a loss, and they don't necessarily know the person they're bringing the food to, that's a god moment," Rabbi Herrmann says.

Mummer-ish moment: Kol Tzedek has lots of musicians in its ranks. Twice a year, they'll do a crash rehearsal for an hour or two, then perform as a pop-up klezmer band. "It's kind of a ragtag, anyone-who-wants-to-play kind of thing."

Words of hope: "There's a line in the Jewish liturgy that says: 'In every day creation is renewed,' " Rabbi Herrmann says. "That to me is the ultimate line of hope. . . . We always have the possibility to repair ourselves and the world. It's never too late."

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