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Keneseth Israel Celebrates 160 Years in the Business of Social Justice

February 15, 2007 By:
Ryan Teitman
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(From left) Michael and Caryl Levin write a letter in a new Torah scroll, assisted by Rabbi Moshe Druin

Throughout its 160 years, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park has retained its devotion to the spirit of social justice. From its first rabbi -- an abolitionist who led the congregation during the Civil War period -- to the synagogue's recent relief efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina, K.I. has kept the focus on helping those in need.

It also holds the distinction of being one of the oldest synagogues in Philadelphia. On March 2, 1847, the congregation was founded on North Second Street, in the heart of a community of German Jewish immigrants.

To celebrate this momentous anniversary, the congregation held a slate of musical events last weekend that included the opening of the Eugene and Marie Buxton Collection of Jewish Music and Performing Arts, along with a cantorial concert: "A Story, a Star and a Stage: Jewish Creativity on Broadway."

The Heart of the Matter
While founded as an Orthodox congregation, by 1855, K.I. had become part of the burgeoning Reform movement, and was at first led by lay leaders, not rabbis, who were often called "reverends." They even had an organ for music, "which was unusual for a Jewish congregation," according to Phyllis Sichel, who chaired the Keneseth Israel archives for 17 years. "We were frowned on a bit."

And until 1877, it conducted all congregational business in German.

The synagogue migrated to various locations in Philadelphia before moving to its current home in Elkins Park in the 1950s. "They've always followed the flow of their congregants," said Sichel.

But it never lost its sense of original purpose. Congregation president Carey Roseman is a fourth-generation member of K.I.; her great-grandmother joined in the late 1800s.

"Social service and social justice are at the heart of who we have been," she noted. "Our congregation responds mightily to those issues."

The congregation's commitment to social issues began with its first rabbi, Dr. David Einhorn, who led the congregation from 1861 to 1866. The abolitionist rabbi and his family were run out of Baltimore because of their views, which brought Einhorn to Philadelphia and eventually to the helm at K.I.

His leadership during the tumultuous Civil War years in a socially divided Philadelphia had a profound impact on the congregation, attested current Senior Rabbi Lance J. Sussman.

Throughout the years, the social-justice tradition continued, from the congregation's support for women's rights, civil rights and on to championing the State of Israel.

This history of service was evidenced most recently when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The congregation took up a community collection and sent multiple truckloads of relief supplies down to the victims, said Sussman.

"It was overwhelming, the response to that," said Sichel. The congregation's entire auditorium was full of boxes of clothing and other necessary staples.

The congregation's rabbis continued that initial commitment throughout the years. Dr. Samuel Hirsch founded the Orphan Guardians, the precursor to the Jewish Foster Home. Dr. Joseph Krauskopf founded the Farm School in Doylestown, now known as Delaware Valley College.

And Rabbi Bertram Korn, who became the congregation's senior rabbi in 1949, was a distinguished scholar of American Jewish history, writing about Jews during the Civil War, and was the first Jewish officer to receive the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy. A powerful orator, he spearheaded K.I.'s support for the newly formed Israel.

In addition to remembering its rich history, Keneseth Israel is making history as well during this anniversary year by commissioning the writing of a Torah scroll, which the congregation has never done before, said Sussman.

"It's the central object in the life of the synagogue," he said. The new scroll will not only celebrate the first 160 years of the congregation, "but it's also launching the next 160."

Miriam Finkel, a co-chair of the Torah project, has been a member of the congregation for more than 45 years. The synagogue hired Rabbi Moshe Druin of Miami, who's been making the rounds around town for various other sefer Torahs, to do the inscription. The rabbi will fill in the outline of the letter while a member touches his hand.

"The spiritual effect of it is astonishing," said Finkel. The children are especially excited, she added, since they're taking part in the creation of the Torah that they'll probably use during their Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.

Kim Mannin, 42, has been a member since the third grade. She was married there, and her sons went to preschool there: "There's a new resurgence. Younger generations are getting involved."

The celebration of the anniversary began in January with a family retreat at Camp Harlam in the Poconos, and the events are far from over. On April 27, the congregation will premiere "Eitz Chayim," by Michael Isaacson, a composition written for a service honoring members who have been a part of the congregation for 20-plus years.

On May 20, the Torah Project will conclude with the inscription of the last letter, capping off the 160th-anniversary festivities.

For more information, call 215-887-8700.


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