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Religious Life

May 17, 2012 By:
Fredda Sacharow
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The interior of Mikveh Israel, circa 1900.

If you were a Jew in Philadelphia during the latter half of the 19th century, one of an estimated 12,000 members of the tribe, your synagogue of choice was either a Reform or an Orthodox congregation. 

The Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, the independent minyanim, the popularity of the do-it-yourself brand of chavurot — all remained in the near or distant future.

 

Counting women toward a minyan? Women rabbis? Gays and lesbians in the pulpit? You’d have had more luck finding a croissant on a seder table.

The last 125 years have seen enormous demographic and societal changes in religious life, which have both shaped and mirrored the way Jewish Philadelphia worships.

 

Two venerable synagogues — Congregation Rodeph Shalom and Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel — were already thriving when the first Jewish Exponent rolled off the presses in 1887. A third, Mikveh Israel, was entering its second century. 

Then came a tidal wave of immigration, as thousands upon thousands of Jews sought a new life across the ocean.

By and large, these were not wealthy people. As sociologists point out, the rich generally don’t emigrate. Nor were they particularly religious; the pious didn’t see America as a hotbed of Yiddishkeit. But they did need a place to attend High Holiday services, and to socialize with fellow Jews. 

  Their need coincided with the early stirrings of Conservative Judaism in Philadelphia nurtured by the Italian-born rabbi who was the chazzan of Mikveh Israel, Sabato Morais.

  Morais was among the founders and early scholars of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which was created largely in response to what was seen by some as a problematic document of principles adopted by the Reform Movement in 1885 calling on Jews to adopt a more modern approach to their faith.

 

The Conservative movement, seen by many as a bridge between the Orthodox and Reform worlds, flourished in Philadelphia during the 20th century. Many of the large congregations still in existence today were founded in those early years: Temple Har Zion in 1922, Germantown Jewish Centre in 1936, Temple Beth Zion (now Beth Zion-Beth Israel) in 1946.

Congregation Adath Jeshurun, established in 1858, embraced Conservative Judaism as early as 1910, and became a founding member of the United Synagogue of America.

The Orthodox movement has flourished in various neighborhoods in the region, including Northeast Philadelphia, Elkins Park and the Main Line.

Chabad has grown exponentially, with thriving centers around the city and the far exurbs.

The Reconstructionist movement, youngest of the major streams of American Jewish life, also has firm roots in the Philadelphia area, which has been home to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College since its founding in 1968.

Originally housed in two brownstones on North Broad Street, RRC now enrolls approximately 80 future rabbis and scholars in a mansion in Wyncote.

In recent years, more and more area Jews have found their spirituality through small, independent prayer groups, most of them egalitarian, which stress a hands-on approach to Judaism. Taking their cue from the popular Jewish Catalogue books that made rituals accessible to all, these groups encourage communal davening and home observance.

Rabbis are also noticing an intriguing trend: Jews who fled by the thousands to the suburbs ringing Philadelphia now find Center City a more attractive place to settle and to raise children. 

And one of those rabbis — Simeon J. Maslin, who led Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel for 17 years before retiring in 1997 — says he wishes his former synagogue had established a branch in Philadelphia proper, “because that’s where I think the future of Judaism is.”

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