Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
Someone obviously forgot to warn Lauren Grabelle Herrmann how risky it was to start a synagogue from scratch in the first decade of the new century, with members leaving established synagogues in droves and the economy a few short years from tanking.
Just as well. The newly minted rabbi might have had second thoughts about launching Kol Tzedek, now a thriving hub of Judaism in West Philadelphia, where the last remaining synagogue had closed its doors sometime in the 1980s.
“I was a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College when I moved into the area, which had been a vibrant Jewish community for many decades before I got there,” Herrmann, 35, recalls.
Looking around, she saw a rebirth of sorts: a new elementary school being built, young families moving into the area rather than retreating to the suburbs.
With a couple of Jewish friends, Herrmann started what she calls a “low-key” chavurah in one pal’s apartment. Twenty people showed up to daven that day in 2002, and a monthly Friday night service was born. As word of mouth worked its magic, the chavurah transitioned into a full-fledged congregation, now almost 90 households strong.
Herrmann says she’s been “happily surprised” by the trajectory.
“With every year we see growth — not huge, but steady,” she says of Kol Tzedek, which meets in space rented from the Calvary Center for Community and Culture on South 48th Street. The congregation boasts a Hebrew School with 27 students, adult education programming and High Holidays services that draw at least 375 worshipers.
There’s a decidedly young vibe to the Reconstructionist congregation, whose website offers directions by bike as well as by public transit, car and foot. Not charging for that High Holiday attendance helps, as does having a rabbi who is just 35 and who peppers her conversations with words like “cool” and “neat.”
A former president of the Rutgers Hillel, Herrmann believes Jewish life in general and Jewish life in the city in particular are undergoing a period of revitalization, and she’s delighted to be part of it. She and her husband are raising their two small children to be city kids, and the religious leader identifies with the families who populate Kol Tzedek’s membership rolls.
For the Cherry Hill native, the future of synagogues lies in providing a “warm and caring” environment “that’s not the synagogue your parents grew up in.”