Have you ever found yourself wondering what was going on in Elkins Park in 1847?
If you did, you could simply look to the archives of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, where you might find that organizers were having a meeting founding the synagogue itself.
The congregation, which dates to March of that year, just celebrated its 170th anniversary with special programming and services, including a large Shabbat dinner plus a magic show by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jon Dorenbos. In March, it marked the occasion with a special cantata by Cantor Jonathan Comisar based on George Washington’s letter to the Jewish community in 1790.
For this weekend, they also created a special tribute journal with the history of the synagogue as well as the history of families who have been with the synagogue through it all.
Its Century Club members — people whose families have been with Keneseth Israel for 100 years or more — were honored at the Shabbat dinner as well.
“We have 50 families whose membership is more than 100 years, several generations,” Rabbi Lance J. Sussman noted. “We have 20 families who belong here within 30 years of the synagogue’s founding, from 1887 or before. And we have two households that have belonged to the synagogue the entire time — that is, their family of those days were at the organizing meeting in 1847 and have been here ever since, straight through membership through all those generations.”
These families and their history with the synagogue evince a deep connection to the community, he said.
“It’s a strong point of pride that we have a stable institution with very, very deep roots and self-consciousness of itself as being old and venerable,” Sussman said. “Most Jewish institutions today — most synagogues for sure — most of the membership is of recent origin within the last five or 10 years, and it’s an opportunity for them to learn about how the place was founded and how it grew over time.
“We have all types of oral history about weddings and celebrations of the past of the synagogue, so it makes it a deep experience to be part of a community like that.”
The continuity is on full display in the synagogue’s archives, which Sussman said are in the process of being digitized. From marriage records to Bar and Bat Mitzvah records, everything is available for those wanting to verify their ancestry or that of other congregants.
But for all of the focus on the past, the rabbi called the anniversary an opportunity to look ahead to the next 170 years.
“It’s a time to celebrate and it’s a time to renew,” he explained. “When you belong to a community that’s been 170 years old and you have an active memory going all the way back, it’s very empowering, and we want it to be not just a time of looking backward but a time of renewal and recommitment for the future.”
Mickey Langsfeld can trace his family’s history with Keneseth Israel back to 1867. In fact, he could trace three out of four branches of his family tree to the synagogue, more than 100 years after his ancestors came to the Philadelphia area from places like Germany, Poland and England.
He is one of the members being honored for his family’s long history and relationship with the synagogue.
“It’s amazing that through all the years and all the things going on in this world, there are so many families that still are so interested in the synagogue and have been here for that many years,” Langsfeld noted.
One of his cousins, Malcolm Stern, was a noted genealogist. Langsfeld said Stern passed that passion on, and it has come in handy as he tried to learn more about his family’s synagogue ties.
“I’ve done a bunch of genealogy work, and just to see that my family has been so active in [the synagogue] over all the years and continued to be so active in it … and I’m proud to be Jewish and KI has given me the background to know that I am Jewish and why I am Jewish, so when I look at what’s going on [in the world], I’m proud to have KI as the background,” said Langsfeld.
Langsfeld has several grandchildren at the synagogue. One became a Bat Mitzvah last year. While he joked he won’t be around for most of the next 170 years to see how the synagogue progresses, he said he was proud of the work Keneseth Israel has already done in its corner of Philadelphia.
“Respect and values would be two words that come to my mind [of] what we have and represent,” he said, “and what I hope that we’ll continue to show to more people throughout the community.”
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