Elkins Park Baal Tfilah Took Unusual Path to Becoming a Rabbi

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Rabbi Kevin Bernstein doesn’t fit into any particular box.

He was associated most with Conservative synagogues both in his hometown outside of Washington, D.C., and in Israel, where he lived with his wife and three daughters for six years.

He completed his rabbinical training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote after moving to Philadelphia from Israel.

He now is the education director at Beth David Reform Congregation and recently started working as the baal tfilah at a Conservative shul, Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park.

Before he was a rabbi, he worked in veterinary medicine.

The twists and turns make the question of his own identification difficult to answer, he acknowledged with a laugh.

“I’m not maybe a card-carrying Conservative Jew and may be closer in some ways to a Reform Jew,” he said.

He keeps kosher in and out of the house, which to some may sound like a Conservative Jew, “but I would say because I’m OK not being in any one [stream] in particular and in finding my own expression of Judaism that suits me and helps me, to that extent, I am definitely a Reconstructionist Jew because I believe that’s a lot of what Reconstructionism is about.”

Rabbi Kevin Bernstein

He attended veterinary school at Purdue University and spent many years — both in the United States and in Israel — working as a research veterinarian, looking at vaccines for poultry, in particular.

An interest in working professionally in the Jewish community came about in Israel.

As his daughters were in school there, he became more involved in their school’s parents’ association. It sparked an interest in Jewish education and in engaging in Jewish community work.  

“Most people perceive veterinary medicine as, ‘Wow that’s great to work with animals, that’s fantastic,’ etc., and it was,” he explained. “I definitely enjoyed veterinary medicine and working with both the people and the animals and the science and the medicine, but … I decided I wanted to do something that was perhaps even more meaningful to me, which was working in the Jewish community.”

They were also in a sound situation in which he could pursue his new passion without putting the family at financial risk, he added.

Living in Israel was a means of expressing their Judaism in a major way, he said, and he and his wife wanted that experience for their children as well.

“Upon leaving Israel this was part of asking myself the questions, ‘OK, so if I’m no longer going to express my Judaism in a major way by living in Israel, how else do I want to express my Judaism in a major way?’” he recalled. “And that was one of the answers that I came up with was working as a Jewish professional in the community.”

Moving to Philadelphia, he attended the RRC from 1999 to 2007, working in places like Perelman Jewish Day School and the Gratz College high school program.

After graduating, he worked in Manhattan for a year and then spent about five years as education director for Germantown Jewish Centre, the same role he now plays for Beth David, where he runs the religious school as well as its youth education program.

The Philadelphia Jewish community was always one that “enamored” him, he noted, and he became much more familiar with it after joining an area synagogue softball league.

A teammate in one league belonged to Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El and invited Bernstein to join them for services and be part of the community, because Bernstein was looking for a place where he could attend daily minyan.

“That was one of the places I decided to go and pray every Wednesday morning, and I’ve continued to do that,” he said, noting he has “davened around” as well.

Its longtime cantor, Joshua H. Gordon, retired in June, leaving the synagogue to make a quick decision for someone to fill in, said its president Ron Goldman.

Bernstein, already familiar with the synagogue and its members, became a choice as its baal tfilah, and he began in July.

“He meshes right in with everything very comfortably, so we’re happy at this point,” Goldman said.

While Bernstein noted he is not a cantor as he does not have the musical background or training for that, he leads the song portions of the services and said “the shoe fits.”

“There are a few things I like a lot about the community,” Bernstein said. “It is very warm … but what I like the most about Melrose B’nai Israel is I think they’ve done a real good job of looking at what they are and what they want to be. … They do a very good job of serving their community and I’m delighted that it’s worked out that the way I lead services, they like that also.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740

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