Student rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann wants to create a vibrant Jewish community in West Philadelphia. Helping to invigorate the recently established Kol Tzedek synagogue, Grabelle Herrmann hopes to keep ideas there fresh, and not to hesitate to experiment with conventional ideas about programming and prayer services.
Although the new congregation does not have a building – it currently meets at the Calvary Methodist Church on Baltimore Avenue – Grabelle Herrmann says that routinely, 25 to 50 people gather for a typical Friday-night service.
The religious leader was recently recognized by Synagogue 3000, a progressive Jewish think-tank that seeks to energize synagogue life. The organization invited her to attend a meeting of its Leadership Network Working Group on Emergent Sacred Communities at an interfaith conference in Simi Valley, Calif., held last week. There, she met with more than 50 Jewish and Christian leaders from across the country all trying to create better and more meaningful places in which to worship.
"They're not saying do X, Y and Z," explains Grabelle Herrmann, 29, a West Philly resident who will graduate from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College this June. "They're all about supporting the organic creation of holy communities."
As she listened to the ideas traded during discussions, she says she realized that Kol Tzedek is doing pretty well in that regard so far.
"I felt like, in some ways, we're really on the right track," she says, "our hospitality, creating community, and doing things outside of synagogue."
To keep improving the actual service, Grabelle Herrmann wants to incorporate music into the proceedings, host some open-mic nights or hold Torah study in cafes, though all such ideas must first be discussed with Kol Tzedek's board of directors.
Discussions at the conference about interfaith dialogue rang true for this young rabbi, especially when the Christians in attendance urged that religious leaders spend "more time out in the community – and less time worrying about the building and space."
"Our mission," she says, is not just increasing membership, "but serving the community."
'Out of the Blue'
As she was growing up in Cherry Hill, N.J., Grabelle Herrmann's family was not particularly religious.
"We went to High Holiday services; we'd go to a Passover seder – and that was it," she notes matter of factly.
As a teenager, her interest in Judaism was sparked when she participated in North American Federation of Temple Youth activities. The Reform youth group spurred her to continue her Jewish education.
"Something popped in my head that I should become a rabbi," she says now. "It was really out of the blue because I didn't know that much about what that meant. It just kept calling me, and I decided that it was the right thing to do."
After graduating from Rutgers University, she worked briefly for a nonprofit group doing health advocacy, but soon realized that just wasn't enough.
She enrolled in the RRC in the fall of 2000.
As for her mission of harnessing Jewish life in West Philadelphia, Grabelle (who just added Herrmann to her name, marrying Jonathan Herrmann last April) is hopeful that she can see this project through.
"I really fell in love with the neighborhood," she says. "I felt like this was a really amazing place; it's diverse economically; racially, it's progressive; and it has a larger sense of community." The only thing it needs now, she adds, is "spiritual revitalization."