Our History

Congregation Rodeph Shalom dates its founding to 1795 with the coalescing of the first Ashkenazic congregation in the Western Hemisphere. Because the congregation chose to follow the German/Dutch order of prayer, in 1812 it was chartered by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania as the “Hebrew German Society (Rodeph Shalom).” From its founding, Rodeph Shalom was determined not to exclude members based on financial circumstances. Additionally, in 1829, a rule about intermarriage was established: “Members who married non-Jews would not be expelled as long as they raised their children as Jews.” 

Furness building 
For over fifty years, services were conducted in numerous locations throughout “Olde City Philadelphia.” Not until 1847, when a former church was purchased and refurbished, did Rodeph Shalom have its own building: the Juliana Street Synagogue. Rodeph Shalom was able to construct its first dedicated sanctuary in 1871 on its current site at Broad and Mount Vernon Streets. This striking edifice was designed by Frank Furness, considered the most exciting Philadelphia architect of his time. It was a showpiece of Moorish-style architecture.

In 1873, Rodeph Shalom became a charter member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (which is now called the Union for Reform Judaism.) The Union was founded by Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of Reform Judaism in the United States. Many of Dr. Wise’s innovations, which were designed to improve worship among American Jews, were adopted by Rodeph Shalom. These initiatives included mixed seating at services, instrumental music during worship and confirmation ceremonies.

From the end of the Civil War to the end of World War II, Rodeph Shalom had but four rabbis, all men of great intellect and influence. Dr. Marcus Jastrow who served at RS from 1866 to 1892 was an activist, scholar, writer and teacher. Rabbi Jastrow compiled the seminal dictionary translating Aramaic into English, the Jewish Encyclopedia, and the modern translation of the Bible. His willingness to incorporate English into the service paved the way for the congregation’s transition toward affiliation with the Reform Movement.

Rabbi Henry Berkowitz, who served at Rodeph Shalom from 1892 to 1921, was one of the first four Reform rabbis to graduate from the newly formed Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Rabbi Berkowitz was the founder of the Jewish Chautauqua Society, an organization that provided lectures on Jewish topics to non-Jewish audiences and promoted interfaith dialogue. Rabbi Harry Ettelson, who served at RS from 1921 to 1925, carried on the liberal traditions established by Rabbi Berkowtiz and firmly grounded Rodeph Shalom in the Reform Movement.

Rabbi Louis Wolsey, who served at Rodeph Shalom from 1925 until 1947, was of the generation of “great rabbi orators” who dominated congregational Judaism in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1928, Rabbi Wolsely directed the building of “the new synagogue building,” which is our current home. This magnificent structure combined “the synagogue house” with the “religious school house” for the first time. Wolsey became embroiled in controversy when he originally opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Wolsey saw Judaism as a universal religion and not a nationality and proposed that Judaism be kept out of politics.

Rabbi David Wice, who served Rodeph Shalom from 1947 until 1981, shepherded the congregation through a period of unprecedented growth and social change. He enlarged the scope of synagogue services and connected Judaism to the everyday lives of his congregants. Rabbi Wice supported the creation of a Suburban Center in Elkins Park as Jews migrated to the northern suburbs. Throughout his life, Rabbi Wice was a champion of Reform Judaism, the international Progressive Jewish Movement, and was a leading advocate for educational and social welfare causes. As President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (1973-1980), he guided the international Reform movement through a critical period of change and growth. It was during his tenure that the movement moved its headquarters to Jerusalem, which was a central event in the movement’s history, reinforcing the centrality of Israel in Progressive Jewish life.

Rabbi Richard Steinbrink joined Rodeph Shalom as an associate rabbi in 1970 and was appointed senior rabbi in 1981. It was Rabbi Steinbrink who reintroduced rituals and traditions into Rodeph Shalom’s worship service. During his first service as senior rabbi, Rabbi Steinbrink wore a black robe and tallis on the bimah which was quite controversial at the time. Focusing on issues of public concern such as nuclear arms control, local and world hunger and the crisis in public education, Rabbi Steinbrink encouraged congregants to think critically about the world and, if necessary, to fight for change.

Rabbi Alan D. Fuchs led the congregation as senior rabbi from 1988 to 1998. A graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1963. Before joining RS, Rabbi Fuchs served as senior rabbi of the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was also rabbi at Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh; Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park; and Temple Beth El in Somerville, New Jersey; and served as a US Army chaplain at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Verdun, France.

William I. Kuhn became senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in 1998. Rabbi Kuhn was ordained in 1994 by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and immediately came to RS, serving as assistant and associate rabbi beginning in 1994. He brings broad and distinctive life experience to the congregation's historic pulpit.