My journey to Jewish engagement was rocky, at best. In fact, I spent most of my Jewish life disengaged and unaffiliated. We joined Rodeph Shalom as an interfaith family seeking to find Jewish connections for our children. Ultimately, it was through the Religious School, my Adult Bat Mitzvah and work on the Alternative High Holy Day Services that I finally felt deep connections to Judaism and this remarkable community.
This is an extraordinary time in the long history of Rodeph Shalom. Like so many of you I love being a part of the remarkable transformation that is occurring in our lives and our community because of this great institution.
Rodeph Shalom has been a spiritual home to Philadelphia’s Jews and their families for over 200 years. We have been at this location since 1871 and in this building since 1928. In the 83 years since our building was constructed, both our neighborhood and Judaism have undergone significant changes.
As a congregation we are thriving. But, if you assumed that this is the golden age of American Judaism based on what you see here, you would be wrong. Many congregations are struggling due to declining birth rates, greater numbers of inter marriage and disengagement particularly among our young adults. These trends have been well documented.
Aware of these trends, Rodeph Shalom’s clergy, staff and lay leadership responded proactively.
Our response has been driven by a vision that informs everything we do with the goal of creating a Jewish community of profound connections through transformative study, prayer, and urban engagement.
The hard work and dedication of our congregation is showing amazing results. Against the odds, and in contrast to the publicized demographic trends, Rodeph Shalom is growing both in numbers and in depth of engagement. Let me tell you about just a few of our many recent successes.
• We have increased our membership significantly during the past five years. We are more than 1,100 families.
• Our Mercaz Limud (our youth Religious School) has more than doubled in size in the past four years. We have over 280 students.
• The Buerger Early Learning Center is two years ahead of enrollment projections.
• Participation in our Alternative High Holy Day and Shabbat Services has exceeded all expectations.
• We are partnering with many of Philadelphia’s non-profit institutions to improve our city through education and community advocacy.
• We have a thriving young friends’ community and creative initiatives to engage unaffiliated young Jewish adults.
We are in the midst of a renaissance of community, worship and study that is rooted in Jewish content and connections. Our clergy and staff are committed and visionary. Our congregants are enthusiastic about the path we are on. Our community flourishes in the diversity that is our Spring Garden home and is rejoicing in the resurgence of our neighborhood. We are proud of the role we play as an institutional anchor on North Broad Street. We are proof that a bright and vibrant future for Judaism is indeed possible for congregations willing to assertively respond.
But, with success and the sheer realities of time, come challenges. We are blessed with a beautiful building which houses a magnificent sanctuary. However, our building is not able to meet the demands resulting from our growth in numbers and engagement; nor can it meet the security and safety expectations of the 21st century. We are facing a number of extensive spatial challenges:
• We have insufficient classroom, meeting and worship space.
• Other than the spectacular refurbishment of the Sanctuary and upgrades to our lower level, our 83 year old building has not received necessary infrastructure upgrades.
• Our congregation includes many who are elderly, frail or disabled. At present we do not sufficiently meet the needs of these congregants and visitors with the accessibility and dignity they deserve.
• We have inadequate space to house and display our internationally renowned art collections and exhibits.
In order to address these issues, we engaged world renowned architects KieranTimberlake to produce an outstanding Master Facility Plan that is beautiful, meets our needs and is flexible enough to support our commitment to be the regional center for Jewish life well into the 21st century.
For the past two years we have been working hard but quietly to launch a capital campaign that we have named the Legacy Campaign to begin raising the funds that will make this dream a reality. Our goal is to raise $18 million. With the extraordinary generosity and vision of several congregants and the support of your clergy, staff and board of trustees we have raised almost 70%. In addition to providing the foundation for our capital campaign, early gifts have already enabled us to move forward with the Buerger Early Learning Center, the Berkman Learning Center, which houses our youth religious school, and the Thalheimer Family Lobby. From the time the construction begins next year, we expect to finish the project within 18 months without significant disruption to our ongoing activities.
This initiative is not a luxury. This is about ensuring that we bring this building into the 21st century so that we can fulfill the needs and exceed the expectations of our thriving community as we serve as the center for Jewish life in our region. It is time to rise to the challenge, just as our Rodeph Shalom predecessors did in 1871 and again in1928.
During the next few weeks you will learn more about our Legacy Campaign that will support our growth and vision. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact any of the rabbis, or me to learn more about this critical initiative and how you can help.
We are all responsible for our sacred space and the people who study, congregate and worship in it, now and for generations to come.
Dena Herrin, President