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A New Voice Of Justice From the West

John Oliver Mason

Kol Tzedek (Voice of Justice) is a new Reconstructionist congregation in West Philadelphia. Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, a student rabbi in her last year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wynnecote, is the congregation's spiritual leader. She entered RRC in the fall of 2000, and will be ordained in June of this year.

Originally from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Grabelle-Herrmann describes her decision to enter the rabbinate: "When I was in high school, I was very involved with the Reform youth movement. Once, when I was at a youth group conference I thought to myself that I should become a rabbi. I was about sixteen, and that kind of stuck. Although I thought about other things, and I spent a little bit of time working outside the Jewish community, I decided that I wanted to pursue the rabbinate."

Of the origins of Kol Tzedek, Grabelle-Herrmann says, "About three years ago, a group of people started a small havurah that met once a month on Friday, in people's homes in West Philadelphia. I was involved with it, as was Noga Newberg, who is now the president of Kol Tzedek, and a few other lay people. It seemed like there were a lot more people out there who were interested in Judaism in West Philadelphia, but they didn't know about the havurah, and they weren't involved." 

Grabelle-Herrmann adds, "I thought to myself, 'Well, here I am, I'm a rabbinical student, I want to have a congregation one day, and this neighborhood seems like a place that could use a synagogue.' There used to be many, many synagogues here (in West Philadelphia) and then the Jewish community left. Now there many more Jewish people living here and moving back, so I thought I would give it a try." 

Graybelle-Herrmann collected names of people interested in joining a synagogue, and held meetings in people's homes: "I started meeting with people and getting the word out that I was trying to start a synagogue, and I found a few people who were interested, and we planned a Hanukah party." Since then, the synagogue has had such events as text studies, Torah studies, social action events, Shabbat dinners at people's homes, and Shabbat services twice a month, along with the holidays.

Ed Epstein, an artist in drawing and painting, is the Program chair of Kol Tzedek, "I've been living here in the neighborhood in the past two and a half years," he says, "and I'd been looking around for a synagogue. My family used to attend Society Hill Synagogue, and it's kind of a commute to take my daughter over there for Hebrew School. I found out about this group of people who were getting together to found a synagogue in West Philadelphia, and I was very interested. So I went to a few events, and I got to know the rabbi, Lauren Grabelle, and I really liked what they were doing."

Grabelle-Herrmann asked Epstein to come on the board, and he agreed, adding, "So far we put together a lot of great programs. We got the synagogue officially organized as a non-profit, and we're in the midst of a membership drive- we have now around forty families that have joined and are paying dues. We had High Holy Days services this fall. We did this Hanukkah concert (in the Rotunda, 40th and Walnut streets) this December. So it's been great, everything's been very successful."

What is the age range of Kol Tzedek's members? "It's really wide ranging," says Epstein, "we have members who are college-age, graduate school people in their twenties, in their fifties and sixties. One of the things we stressed in organizing the synagogue is its being open and welcoming to all kinds of people, and that includes different ages, Gay and Lesbian members, and interfaith couples as well."

Does Epstein find it significant that the congregation is part of the Reconstructionist movement? "I think that's really important," he says, "because, for me anyway, that's the movement that fits most closely with the views of the people in this community (West Philadelphia), a lot of the Jews right around here, who are generally liberal in their political views. They want things like equality for women in their religious practice, but I think they're also looking for authentic Judaism, they're looking for tradition, and I think Reconstructionism provides that, it provides a connection with the past, but a basically modern outlook as well."

Of Kol Tzedek's affiliation with the Reconstructionist movement, Graybelle- Herrmann says, "We are proud to be part of the Reconstructionist movement. Reconstructionist Judaism sees Judaism as an evolving religious civilization in every generation. In our generation as well we have the opportunity to engage tradition with our contemporary lives to recreate Judaism. In addition, being a part of the movement helps us feel connected to the large community of progressive Jews in Philadelphia and around the country."