Rabbi Shawn Zevit only applied to work at one congregation. And Mishkan Shalom, the Reconstructionist synagogue in the Roxborough section of Philly known for its focus on social justice and experimental prayer, only seriously considered one candidate for head rabbi.
The result, according to Zevit, was bashert. The 53-year-old from Toronto this week is leading his first High Holiday services at the synagogue, which is marking its 25th anniversary as an independent community.
Zevit said he was looking forward to the “exploration and the holy work that we will do together.” Part of that exploration, he said, involves asking “what does it mean to be a Jewish community and a faith community in the 21st century?”
An actor, writer and musician, Zevit said he plans to incorporate his love of the arts into his pulpit at Mishkan Shalom.
“I’ve always been intrigued at the intersection of spirituality, transformational justice work, and creative and artistic expression,” he said. “Helping to strengthen Shabbat and the Jewish spiritual experience across the board is one of my goals.”
Zevit’s name might be familiar to many Philadelphians. He lived here from 1993 to 2007, arriving as a 33-year-old to enroll in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.
For 14 years, he worked for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. When that organization merged with RRC, his position was eliminated.
He lived in Mount Airy and belonged to the Germantown Jewish Centre and P’nai Or Jewish Renewal Congregation. He also has a personal rabbinic ordination from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Renewal movement. And with Rabbi Marcia Prager, he still serves as co-director for the Alliance for Jewish Renewal’s Davennen’ Leadership Training Institute, which, says its website, helps “those who lead worship and other communal events in a Jewish context.”
He moved from Philadelphia to Cleveland in 2007 after marrying another rabbi, Simcha Zevit. While there, in addition to working for JRF, he commuted three hours to Detroit to serve a small synagogue on a part-time basis. He said his wife plans to eventually relocate here as well.
Zevit — who is replacing Rabbi Linda Holtzman — said he was drawn to Mishkan Shalom, a 200-family synagogue, because of the congregation’s commitment to social justice and environmental sustainability.
He also said Mishkan is one of the few synagogues nationally that includes in its statement of principles a commitment to work to end the suffering of the Palestinians. Mishkan has long been known as a haven for the left and a community where members can feel uninhibited about criticizing Israel. Zevit said this won’t change, but he hopes to push some congregants to have a deeper relationship with Israel, and he hopes to lead a trip to the Jewish state.
Like many another congregation, Mishkan Shalom has struggled to meet the costs of operating a building. It’s located in a structure that once housed an old mill. The synagogue has begun renting out space to a variety of religious organizations to both raise funds and build partnerships. Zevit said he expects a broad strategic review to be underway later this year.
“Given that there has been some membership shifts over
the past five years, rebuilding is definitely part of the equation,” he said, referring to a decline in the congregation’s numbers. “We are also looking at who our partners are going to be and what are some of the ways that we can share work in the world.”