What a profoundly moving season we have shared in our celebrations of Rabbi Kuhn, his legacy and his retirement! As powerful as our community events have been, the more behind-the-scenes transition process has been important as well. Rabbi Kuhn’s extraordinary generosity as my career-long mentor has guided the path of transition as he has been teaching me, empowering me, and handing over the reigns.
I already am blessed with deep relationships with our congregants and professional team; yet the time has come for us to be reintroduced to one another. Over the coming months and throughout this first year of my senior rabbinate, I plan to work with our lay-leaders and professional team to create a series of opportunities for us to get to know each other, for me to share of my vision and my personal connection to Rodeph Shalom, and for you to share what matters to you most about your relationship to our community. Please look for more information soon about those opportunities to encounter each other anew.
Over the coming months I will also begin to share with you my vision for how our congregation can take the next steps in our Rodeph Shalom vision: creating profound connections. Ever aware that even small changes can often feel unsettling, I look forward to the chance to begin to bring my own interpretation to our pursuit of what it means to be the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia.
To begin, I share with you an adaptation of the vision statement I provided to the rabbinic search team during my interview process for the position of senior rabbi:
Ohev Shalom v’Rodeph Shalom: A Vision for the Future, Rooted in the Past, to Pursue in the Present
First generation American, my grandfather’s vision laid the foundation for the future of our family. In 1958, Grandpa Sol visited Montauk, the small fisherman’s town at the eastern end of Long Island, where he glimpsed at the most beautiful beach he had ever seen.
In that first moment, Grandpa pictured his future business and the life he would create for the next generation. Then he looked to the past to learn from the experience of his Russian immigrant parents who knew hard work, fear and courage. Soon after his first visit to Montauk, Grandpa picked up his hammer and with his own two hands built the motel and then a house for his wife and three children that would become the family’s business and its center.
My grandfather, of blessed memory, is no longer with us and the motel was sold upon his retirement; yet we still have the house he built. Every summer we continue to gather the family. As first cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles and great-grandchildren build sand castles and ride the waves, we are grateful that wherever life takes us, we truly know our extended family, we are sustained by our roots and we are grounded in the vision Grandpa brought to fruition.
Much like my grandfather’s journey, Jewish time does not move linearly from past to present to future. In Jewish time, taught the 20th century Rabbi Joseph Soleveichik, we move from future to past to present. We envision the future, learn lessons from the past and then take action in the present. All of this begins with a vision for the future. Rabbi Soleveichik’s Jewish time guides my rabbinic work, and I believe that when it guides our community’s work, we begin to ensure the future of the Jewish people.
For our congregation, the time has come to step into our next era of Jewish time. As the senior rabbi of the next era of Rodeph Shalom, I will build on Rabbi Kuhn’s steadfast and transformative leadership and I also am eager to focus in new areas to respond to the realities of our day. I extend my hand to collaborate with the congregation to move from future to past to present. In sacred partnership with lay-leaders and in a relationship with the broader congregation grounded in listening, adjusting cadence and honoring our rich history, let us envision the future of our center of Jewish life, learn from our history and passionately lead the congregation to take new direction in the areas of outreach leadership, moral leadership and organizational synagogue leadership.
A House of Prayer for All People: Outreach Leadership
Across the North Broad Street facade of the original part of our building is inscribed the words of Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Key to my purpose as a rabbi is my belief that Reform Judaism exists to help every person find a spiritual home, whether they are engaged in Jewish life or on the fringe. Now is the time for our congregation to interpret Isaiah’s teaching, “a house of prayer for all peoples,” as a mandate to become the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia. Accountable to our membership, our congregation’s obligation cannot end there. We are accountable not only to our current members, but also to our future members. Ultimately, our highest responsibility is to serve the vision of the congregation: to create profound connections.
Classical Reform taught and continues to teach us that we do not exist in a Jewish bubble: our aesthetic is relevant when it reflects the cultural backdrop of the time. In its earliest days, Rodeph Shalom established itself on a foundation of Jewish values such as education, inclusion, imagination and modern relevance. Decades ago, the aim to remain relevant motivated the creation of a community in the suburbs while at the same time enduring as a presence in the city. In more recent years, Rodeph Shalom audaciously embraced interfaith families and reinvented strategies to include many, such as Jews of color and LGBTQ Jews, to ensure that they do not exist on the margins of the Jewish community.
In order to move toward the vision, ever learning from our past, this next era of Rodeph Shalom’s journey must be bold and move us forward. To become the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia is not only our aspiration; it is our responsibility. Indeed, this responsibility extends beyond becoming the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia; our work is nothing less than to ensure the future of the Jewish people.
For Rodeph Shalom to become the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia—where we continue to witness and contribute to the vitality of urban transformation—we will need to take a giant leap outside of our walls (as magnificent as they are) to serve the Jewish people. If we release a sense of obligation to our walls and to the holy Jewish living that is already taking place within them, if we take Rodeph Shalom to the people of Philadelphia without fear of competing with our existing community, we can connect to the seekers and disaffected Jews in our city. Our embrace of Jewish diversity, our non-judgmental welcome to varying styles of Jewish observance and our openness to the faithful, the seeker, the doubter and the disbeliever, make Rodeph Shalom a place where so many Jews can rediscover their heritage and so many people can find a new path to religion.
Only limited by our imagination, our next step is to make our philanthropy more robust so that we may approach our highest aspirations. Once we do, it is not hard to imagine the possibility for a High Holy Day service in Fairmount Park, professional clergy who devotes significant time to outreach in the city, and partnerships with every Philadelphia organization who shares with us meaningful values. Once we do, it is not hard to imagine a vibrant future of the Jewish people.
Love Your Neighbor as Yourself: Moral Leadership
Over the left door of the North Broad Street facade of the original part of our building is inscribed the words of Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Key to my theology is the belief that when I open my eyes, I can see something of the divine in every human being. The spark of God in every person demands that when we encounter the suffering of our neighbor, we find ways to bring repair to the brokenness in our world. Now is the time for our congregation to interpret this teaching from Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as a mandate to expand our role as leaders of social justice.
In order to move toward the vision, ever learning from our past, the next era of Rodeph Shalom’s journey must bring us from the place of social justice participation to the place of social justice leadership. My vision is to expand meaningful community service activities for all ages, much like we have begun to successfully accomplish in recent years. And my vision is to allow such direct-contact service experiences to permeate our souls, allowing us to see more clearly the divine in every person, the suffering in our world, and the potential we have to provide repair not only on the ground with community service but also in public policy. It is time for Rodeph Shalom, in partnership with as many organizations whose values overlap with our own, to raise its voice of moral leadership.
One key challenge in establishing our moral voice is our diversity of opinion. In the recent past, as we have favored caution and attempted unity, we have aimed to remain far from controversy. I believe it is time to grapple with difficult social justice issues that make us uncomfortable, so that we may engage congregants in relevant issues and discover more of our moral voice. This is the era to stretch ourselves so that we may face society’s toughest problems and challenge ourselves to step into the forefront of moral leadership.
Life in Center City has become vibrant and richly diverse in a way we might not have imagined even ten years ago. Empty nesters, young adults and families who are moving into and creating a life in Philadelphia seek to fully engage in urban life. They are not choosing the city so that they may be distant from human suffering; congregants and potential congregants are here intentionally to encounter and to repair brokenness in our world. Our role is unique: our physical location is in the heart of urban Philadelphia and our spiritual location is in the heart of Leviticus: to love your neighbor as yourself.
You Shall Make a Menorah: Synagogue Leadership
Over the right door of the North Broad Street facade of the original part of our building is carved the image of the menorah, the candelabra prescribed in the Book of Exodus: “You shall make a menorah.” Key to my perspective of synagogue leadership is that every individual has a sacred purpose. In order to build visionary synagogue governance, our work is to shine a light on and to inspire individuals whose purpose is leadership, and to shine a light on all arms of the congregation, that we may reflect and renew.
Ohev Shalom v’Rodeph Shalom/Love Peace and Pursue It: Pursuing the Vision
On the facade of our new expansion is inscribed the words of Pirke Avot/The Ethics of our Sages: Ohev shalom v’rodeph shalom/love peace and pursue it. When I led our sacred congregational discussion that determined our text selection, this passage compelled us for many reasons: its message inspires inner-peace, its mission demonstrates global peace and our congregation’s name is embedded within the text.
“Love peace and pursue it” also captures a strategy for our vision. With “love,” we turn inward to strengthen our heart, our spiritual foundation and our inspiration. With “pursuit,” we turn outward to fortify our courage to move forward in action.
With both inspiration and with action, I am eager to join hands with our gifted senior staff Cantor Frankel, Rabbi Freedman, Jennifer James, Andi Miller, Jeff Katz, and Catherine Fischer, with our entire devoted professional team, and with our dedicated president Michael Hauptman and our Board of Trustees and with all of you, to look ahead to the future, learn from the past and pursue the vision at this moment in our present.