Milestone for W. Phila. synagogue

Sun, Oct. 23, 2005

Milestone for W. Phila. synagogue
Kol Tzedek, which grew from a group trying to fill a void, held its first High Holiday services.

by Kristin E. Holmes

For years, the West Philadelphia neighborhoods that stretch westward from
the University of Pennsylvania were without a synagogue.

People such as Philip and Deborah Zuchman traveled to Center City to attend
services. Josh Block found community with fellow Jews in meetings of a
small group called a havurah.

That was before Lauren Grabelle Herrmann began her campaign of cold calls.

"Hi, I'm Lauren," she'd say. "I'm a rabbinical student and I'd like to
start a synagogue."

In that way, Kol Tzedek took its first formative steps as a
Reconstructionist congregation. Kol Tzedek, which means Voice of Justice,
was founded in December and held its first High Holiday services this

The congregation of 33 families holds services, Torah School classes, and
most of its other activities at the Calvary Center for Culture and
Community, 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue.

It is one of five congregations, a theater troupe, and several community
organizations that meet at the center, a neighborhood hub founded in 2001
as a way to preserve the then-deteriorating Calvary United Methodist Church

"A synagogue is an important component of a rich, diverse community," said
Richard Kirk, president of the Calvary Center. "I've had two neighbors move
away because they didn't have a Hebrew school or a synagogue to go to."

West Philadelphia had a large Jewish community, and a number of synagogues,
before white families began moving to the suburbs in the '60s, '70s and
'80s, Kirk said. Yet, there is still a substantial Jewish presence in the
area, according to the 1997 Jewish Population Study of Greater

On the northern edge of West Philadelphia, in Wynnefield and Overbrook
Park, is a cluster of Orthodox synagogues and one Conservative one,
Congregation Beth T'fillah of Overbrook Park (though Beth T'fillah is
reconsidering its future there, said Rabbi Robert Rubin).

Kol Tzedek's history dates back several years. Herrmann, synagogue
president Noga Newberg, Block and a group of others in their 20s and 30s
knew each other. They thought that there might be a market for a synagogue
in their neighborhood.

They posted flyers, spread the word through e-mail, and, last December,
held a Hanukkah party. More than 100 people showed up at the Calvary
Center. It would turn out to be the official beginning of Kol Tzedek.

The congregation put its vision on display during the High Holidays. Being
Reconstructionist, Kol Tzedek has a commitment to tradition but with a
"fresh approach," said Herrmann, 29.

That means Yom Kippur services included congregants breaking up for
small-group discussions on issues of social justice and religion in public
life. It means that, during prayers at High Holiday services, Herrmann
encouraged members to state their prayers for the country.

"Democracy," "peace," "a safe return for our soldiers," and "no more
retiring Supreme Court justices" were called out from the pews.

Newberg, 25, grew up in an observant household in a family that belonged to
Germantown Jewish Centre in Mount Airy. She says she wanted to feel that
same kinship when she moved to West Philadelphia.

"I have a community that will rejoice with me when I have a celebration,
take care of me when I'm sick, and I can do the same for them," Newberg

For deborah Kimmelman, whose first name is in all lowercase, Kol Tzedek has
given her acceptance of her same-sex union and family. For Deborah and
Philip Zuchman, the synagogue is a chance to have local community after
traveling for 20 years to Center City.

Kol Tzedek will host its first bar mitzvah on Jan. 14, when Ben Filreis
will read from the Torah. Herrmann announced the date during Yom Kippur

"When she said it, there was this gasp from the congregation, then a sigh
and then this ahhhhh," said Filreis' father, Al, a professor at the
University of Pennsylvania. "It meant that we really are a synagogue."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or