Meet Dena Herrin: a Hebrew school drop-out who married a practicing Catholic — and then went on to become president of one of the largest Reform congregations in Greater Philadelphia. Herrin laughs at the memory of convincing her dad to let her off the hook from religious school because she hated it “with an absolute passion.”
Not only did she find her spiritual home at Rodeph Shalom — a historic congregation based out of a massive Moorish-style building on North Broad Street — she’s spent the last three years chairing a building expansion campaign to keep up with the hundreds of other families, like hers, who have gravitated there.
While intermarriage, disengagement and economics threaten the membership rosters and financial stability of many congregations, Rodeph Shalom has grown into a hub of Jewish activity with 1,127 families and three rabbis.
Just last week, the synagogue hosted the Idan Raichel Project, a popular Israeli musical group, drawing more than 700 concertgoers. Members have raised three-quarters of an $18 million construction project expected to break ground this fall; and an affiliated childcare center is adding two mobile classrooms in response to waiting lists.
In addition, officials just contracted with an independent research company to examine whether there could be enough interest to support a Jewish day school on the site. If the answer turns out to be yes, it would be the first Reform school in the area since the Rimon Jewish Day School in Bucks County closed in the summer of 2001.
With renewed interest in urban living over the past two decades and the growth of the Reform movement, perhaps it’s no surprise that Rodeph Shalom has blossomed.
Anticipating shifting geographic trends, synagogue leaders in 2005 funneled $5.5 million into a year-long renovation of the ornate circa-1928 sanctuary, modeled after the Great Synagogue in Florence, Italy. That same year, they announced plans to shut down a satellite center in Elkins Park, which had opened in 1957 to reach members migrating out of the city.
That decision came with a price, however — according to Jewish Exponent archives, about a third of the more than 1,000 families attended the suburban branch, and some opted to cancel memberships rather than commute into the city.
By 2007, membership had dropped to 941 families. But new members steadily arrived. The convenient metropolitan location certainly helped attract young professionals, empty nesters and other Center City residents, but members said it was the synergy between development and welcoming leadership that kept them coming.
Instead of sitting in an office and deciding what the congregation might like to do, clergy charged members on “visioning” task forces to play a hand in shaping the synagogue’s education programs, urban engagement and political advocacy, said Senior Rabbi William Kuhn.
“We’ve worked really hard to be intentional about everything,” Kuhn said.
Together, clergy and task force members came up with a “whole menu” of opportunities for those who were observant, secular, gay, single, married, raising young children or whatever, said Larry Ceisler, a board member from West Mount Airy.
“People can go à la carte. There’s something there for everybody,” he said, even those who “deactivated for a number of years.”
Added Herrin, “It’s not just that we’re growing — people are showing up all the time, they’re not just coming for High Holidays.”
That took off about four years ago after retooling the religious school to a more interactive “camp-style” model, she said. Rather than staying in one classroom, the students in grades kindergarten through 10th move around to specialists to learn about prayer, art, music and other topics.
Board members sent out research explaining the rationale, along with data showing that kids get more out of the experience when parents are also actively engaged. Parents who used to just drop their kids off started coming in to attend Sunday school services with them, Herrin said. Many of them now stay the whole morning, chatting and reading the paper in the parent lounge. Some joined the men’s club bagel brunches; others formed a choir group.
“They just like to hang out,” Herrin said, noting that religious school enrollment also mushroomed from 160 in 2006 to roughly 280 this fall. “We fight for space on Sundays now. We’re literally bursting at the seams.”
During the week, the synagogue hosts committee meetings, adult education classes or programs for niche groups almost every night. Aside from regular lectures, guest speakers give short speeches during services, followed by a meal with congregants looking for a more interactive exchange. Friday night services that used to draw a handful of worshippers can now exceed 150 — too big for the small chapel but still not big enough for the main sanctuary, Herrin said.
Many of the most active members aren’t even Jewish, Herrin added, a sign of how welcome clergy has made intermarried families feel. She recalled how a former rabbi not only invited her Venezuelan in-laws to hold the Torah on the bimah during her son’s Bar Mitzvah, but paraphased the portion in Spanish so they could understand what was going on.
The synagogue even granted Eli Freedman, a young assistant rabbi who joined the staff two years ago, Fridays off once a month and a stipend for kosher chickens so he and his wife, Laurel Klein, could host Shabbat dinners at their home.
Responding to the demand for full-day childcare, Rabbi Jill Maderer, also a young mom, led efforts to partner with Federation Early Learning Services. The Buerger Early Learning Center opened in a vacant building across the street in fall 2010 and quickly filled all 36 slots.
Not long after enrolling their son that first year, Lauren and Peter Rose joined the congregation. They’d looked at other options closer to their Queen Village home, Lauren Rose said, but settled on Rodeph after seeing the young, enthusiastic rabbis interacting with the preschoolers during a monthly family Shabbat program.
“Especially for a large congregation where you could just be a family among thousands of families, they know my son on a first-name basis,” said Rose, 37, a museum marketing director.
Outside of the preschool, she said, the synagogue is constantly running interesting programs, “above and beyond, ‘it’s Purim, let’s have a Purim carnival,’ ” Rose said, like a young-families playgroup and a networking event.
With more than 1,000 families now on the membership roster and others stopping by for public programs, the expansion is perfectly timed, Herrin said.
Based on current drawings, a new wing would add 27,000 square feet to the existing building, including a multipurpose room, administrative offices and a two-story day care center with capacity for up to 72 children. The project also calls for upgraded security, elevators and stairwells, as well as a new entranceway with a drop-off driveway.
More than 100 congregants have donated to the project so far, Herrin said, enough to break ground on schedule in September. She anticipates that it will take about two years to complete construction and raise the remainder of the money.
Meanwhile, MarketingWorks, a market research firm specializing in education, will begin a feasibility study to examine whether there would be enough interest to sustain a progressive day school at the facility. Rabbis said the overwhelming growth at both the preschool and religious school, coupled with requests from congregants over the years, motivated the study, which the synagogue funded along with a $10,000 matching grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
“It’s kind of been a dream of mine all along,” said Kuhn. Many Reform Jewish families send their kids to private Quaker schools, the rabbi said, “but now there seems to be a desire to do something more.”