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Philly's New Jewish Visionaries
It takes a village of mindful and creative thinkers to power change, fuel movement and come up with the Next Big Things, the ideas that make a difference. But dig deeper, below the surface of those ideas, and you’ll find people with a sense of purpose, for whom “thinking outside the box” is an irrelevant term — there simply is no box to constrain them .
Philadelphia is a village blessed with more than its fair share of change agents. The four people profiled here have very different ways of realizing their visions, but they all have one thing in common: For each of them, being Jewish is at the heart of who they are and what they accomplish.
Rabbi Isabel de Koninck
She’s building inclusive Jewish life on campus at Drexel.
As far as Rabbi Isabel de Koninck knows, she’s the first queer female rabbi to work full-time directing an on-campus program for Hillel. Add in her relative youth and this 30-year-old further stands out from the crowd.
As the director and campus rabbi of Hillel at Drexel University, the native of Montclair, N.J., oversees programming for about 900 Jewish students, a number expected to grow to 1,000 in the next two years. A 2004 graduate of Brandeis University, de Koninck received her rabbinical ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2010, where she also completed a graduate certificate in Jewish gender and women’s studies.
De Koninck sees a great opportunity to foster individual Jewish identity within the student population. “Some students arrive with a strong sense of Jewish community, but there are others who aren’t sure what it is to be Jewish,” she said. “Our goal is to create ways for all students to have relevant and meaningful access to Jewish life, to give them an enduring commitment to Judaism as it matters to them.”
As the first rabbi to lead a Hillel on Drexel’s campus, de Koninck worked quickly to deepen the levels of engagement with all Jewish students — those who already had a deep ownership of their Jewish life, and those who did not. “There wasn’t really a proactive engagement program in place,” she said. “I think as the first rabbi on campus, I bring a different lens to this job.” She hired a second person, now also full-time with Hillel, expanded the Birthright Israel program on campus and facilitated ways to deepen students’ connections both with the community and with each other, through initiatives including weekly study groups and a social justice organization.
Collaboration, innovation and inclusion are the tools of de Koninck’s trade, whether she’s teaching civic engagement to freshmen through the prism of Jewish cultural tradition, or working on an early move-in program that gives students access to Jewish Philadelphia before the semester kicks off in earnest. She’s an advocate of using technology and social media purposefully, “as tools for the Torah, for learning and transmitting ideas.” Recent YouTube videos posted by her students promoting special Shabbat dinners and seders at group home facilities illustrate the point. “The students create in ways that are more fluid and innovative than anything I could ever orchestrate,” she said.
“Drexel’s entrepreneurial spirit pervades all student programs in the arts and sciences, and we feel that support in so many ways. I have so many ideas about what the future of Jewish life might look like on campus,” said the exuberant rabbi, who also happens to be an ace volleyball player and a serious foodie. “Jewish life on campus is growing in leaps and bounds. When we take our work seriously, the students do the same.”
Yes, she sometimes meets Jews who are surprised that queer people and women are ordained as clergy. “I think if I was male, there would be less boundaries. But it is so exciting and fun to be on this particular campus at this moment in time. We are living and learning what is possible right now.”
She is also learning what is not possible — at least, not right now. “Drexel is quickly becoming a well-regarded school both nationally and internationally,” she explained. “We in the Jewish community need to grow our infrastructure to keep pace with that. We are pluralistic in theory, in that we embrace all types of Jewish students wherever they might come from, but in practice, especially relating to Orthodox students, we don’t have the facilities to accommodate them. We don’t have kosher dining and we don’t have space available for daily prayers, so that would be something to work towards.”
De Koninck obviously has her own way of doing things, but that doesn’t mean she is operating in a vacuum. She has a nationwide network of fellow Hillel directors with whom she can discuss her ideas and progress. “Talking to other directors,” she says, reinforces her belief that “at Drexel, we are right on target in the ways we are working with college students to help them own their Jewish futures. Hillel’s model and methods for connecting our students with their Jewish life has a lot to teach the broader Jewish world.”
Hers is a lifelong obsession with early Jewish education.
Since she was 7 years old, Lyndall Miller has known what she wanted to be. Her mother was an elementary school science teacher, an educator who thought constantly about how human beings create meaning and learn. “She had an ongoing conversation with me about how we find out things and discover what is important. I was drawn to the humanity of it, and I knew it’s what I wanted to do,” Miller said.
She has spent the last 40 years continuing that conversation. After getting her master’s in special education, she worked with families of children with special needs in her home state of Virginia and then, after her husband’s job moved the family to Utah, at a Hebrew school in Salt Lake City. Today, Miller commutes from Philadelphia to her job as director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute in Manhattan, a collaborative effort between the Jewish Theological Seminary and HUC-JIR, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.
“It was clear to me that Judaism offered the framework for the search for values and meaning that these parents were looking for,” she said. Raised in a home she described as “culturally Jewish,” Miller found her own way to Judaism after college. “The more I studied, the more I understood the richness of Judaism. It allows for so many different perspectives, and insists on being aware of every action to a magnificent degree. That allows people to make choices on a much higher level. I wanted that for myself and made the shift from regular education to early childhood Jewish education.” The family moved back to Pennsylvania and she enrolled in Gratz College, a relationship that continues today, as she works on her Ed.D through the college’s doctoral program in Jewish education.
Miller sees a crisis looming in early childhood Jewish education. “The directors are aging out. If we don’t revitalize the field, we are losing a tremendous opportunity. Jewish children become Jewish adults. It’s a question of keeping the integrity of our community intact. So often, the choice of how Jewish a family is going to be, how engaged, is affected directly by the parents’ involvement with a Jewish early childhood program.” She proposed a solution to the aging-out dilemma that would be simple, effective — and too costly to implement at this point: “We need more support for credit-bearing coursework and for salaries that will encourage younger people to come into the field.”
Early childhood education is awash in new thinking, and Jewish educators are embracing some of those ideas, especially relating to how children learn experientially and how they perceive themselves and navigate their worlds. Miller said that the Leadership Institute is seizing opportunities to foster leaders and mentors intent on keeping Jewish education robust by focusing on Jewish culture — and our awareness of that culture. “What do we understand about what Judaism has to say about the ideal human being, about how we conduct relationships, about the construction and meaning of community?” are just some of the key questions she uses in the curriculum. “And,” she continues, “how do these ideas coincide with what we know about theories of teaching and learning, and human growth and development? Jewish learning has long emphasized the importance of dialogue in considering all of these issues.
“Early childhood is where a lively and essential Jewish identity is first formed,” Miller continued. “Young Jewish people become old Jewish people eventually — so keeping Jewish education vital ultimately affects us all.”
Practicing tikkun olam in Kwa-Zulu Natal
To David Carel’s way of thinking, he shares more commonalities than differences with the friends he’s made teaching HIV-AIDS education in South Africa. Carel, 22, has family roots in South Africa and visited frequently as a child growing up in Penn Valley. A graduate of Barrack Hebrew Academy, Carel is a senior at Yale University majoring in economics and African studies and was recently named one of just 32 Rhodes Scholars from a pool of more than 800 U.S. applicants.
“While I’m not an expert on South Africa, I grew up with an awareness and understanding of the country and its history,” he said. “Issues surrounding HIV can’t be separated from social and cultural traditions.” In the past few years, Carel has worked with a cadre of researchers and Peace Corps workers to set up a resource center for young adults in the rural northern state of Kwa-Zulu Natal. He learned the Zulu language and immersed himself in the local community, forging cherished relationships with both peers and health care professionals.
Although the program’s focus was initially on HIV-AIDS education, it evolved into a more comprehensive rural African youth-empowerment initiative, covering sexual health education, life skills-building, college application writing and leadership training. A dearth of jobs that leaves many young men no choice but to go to work in the country’s mines, isolated from their loved ones, is a prime catalyst for the viral spread of HIV, and it is also fueling high rates of depression and substance abuse. “We want to help provide resources and financial aid that empower these young people and help them get into school and get jobs,” he said.
Carel has felt a strong connection to Judaism since he was a child. His family prized Jewish education and summer camp, went to services every Saturday and kept kosher. “Judaism is the lens though which I see the world. It allows me to reflect on ethical questions and think through the decisions I make every day,” he said. As the only Jew for miles in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Carel has encountered incredible respect and support for his faith from a population comprised mainly of devout Zulus and Christians. He said that initially, his religion was the source of much curiosity among his host family and neighbors, and it provided an opportunity for cross-cultural exchanges. “I remember they asked lots of questions about what holidays we celebrate, and at some point I was asked to explain why Jews didn’t believe in Jesus the way Christians do.”
Making a difference as he moves forward in his career is paramount to Carel. He’s not sure what that’s going to look like — either he’ll continue working in South Africa or focus on global health policy in Washington, D.C. Whatever direction his future path takes, he now seems to have more than one road home. “I’ve made incredible friends and forged relationships I’m sure will be lifelong,” he said. “There’s a sense of community there that feels like home to me.”
Committed to growing communities, one block at a time.
As he was growing up in Upper Dublin, Ori Feibush, whose parents are both Israeli, went to Israel like other kids visited the Jersey shore. “Even as a kid,” he recalled, “I loved the fact that there’s a real connection in Israel between random individuals, a sense of camaraderie and familiarity even with people you meet on the street — and it’s nice to be able to experience a different culture.” It is perhaps that frequent, early exposure to different cultures that fueled his desire to commit to and improve one of Philadelphia’s most challenged and challenging neighborhoods, Point Breeze.
Feibush, 28, didn’t start out with a plan to become a real estate visionary. He went to Temple and hung out his shingle as an actuary when he graduated, a choice he quickly realized was not for him. Although he was never exposed to the business of real estate — both of his parents are chemists — he saw potential in the properties of Point Breeze during a search for an affordable home.
“I was really looking for a home for myself,” he recalled, “and I saw opportunities to get involved on the community level.” He bought in the neighborhood, which is bounded by 25th Street to the west, Washington Avenue to the north, Broad Street to the East and Mifflin Street to the south.
Despite its proximity to Fitler Square and Rittenhouse Square, Point Breeze is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. “I was trying to move as close to Center City as I could; I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else,” he explained. “I soon became comfortable and made friends with my neighbors, and saw this was a good place to live.”
Although he’s quick to acknowledge he doesn’t have the deep pockets of the late Tony Goldman or Philly’s own Bart Blatstein, he does have a great nose for location and potential. He began buying and renovating a few houses on his block, adding to his neighborhood holdings bit by bit until his company, OCF Realty, has become a ubiquitous presence throughout the area.
OCF Realty has built more than 150 homes in the neighborhood and opened its own coffee shop in 2012 at 20th and Federal Streets, a hopeful beacon on a block that used to be chock-full of movie houses, ice cream parlors and restaurants. “That’s what many of the neighbors remember,” he said.
Feibush’s efforts in Point Breeze have not been met with uniform enthusiasm. When the city rebuffed his overtures to buy a vacant lot next to his coffee shop that had become a de facto dumping ground, he spent his own money to remove 40 tons of trash and to add planters, tables and landscaping to it. And he and his company have become a lightning rod for those who feel he is gentrifying the neighborhood in a way that will raise rents and home prices to the point that longtime residents will be priced out. Feibush doesn’t see his development efforts as gentrification in any sense of the word. “I’ve looked at every definition — gentrification occurs when one group replaces another, and that’s not what’s happened here,” he emphasized. “We are a diverse community interested in a better quality of life, less crime and safer streets.”
Despite what has been reported in the media, Feibush says that his style is consensus building and grassroots engagement. “I haven’t missed a civic meeting in six-and-a-half years,” he said. While acknowledging that some view him as an outsider, Feibush is just fine with that. “I don’t pay to play. I don’t owe anybody other than the neighborhood and people I work with. We all want positive progress and constructive change.”
Beth D’Addono is a luminary in the world of travel journalism. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.