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“Kol Ami is a community where each member’s presence is valued. I feel it each time I participate in Shabbat services and events, and whenever I am with the members who are now my friends. It is the warmth of this congregation that keeps me grounded.”
Executive Director Elaine Stevens probably knows more about the history, organization and daily functioning of Congregation Kol Ami than any other individual. This is in part because Elaine has been with us since the beginning. It is also because of her unwavering dedication to the synagogue and its members.
Elaine served as a founding Board member of Kol Ami from 1994 through 2003, during which time she served several terms as treasurer. As such, she was challenged with setting up the young synagogue’s initial financial structure. Elaine, whose background included extensive administrative work, became Kol Ami’s first Executive Director in 2003. Her position was made full-time shortly after we secured our building.
Although one might not envision Elaine as a thrill seeker, it was the challenge of creating something new and the anticipation of the reward that initially drew her to Kol Ami. Throughout her tenure, she has helped the synagogue stay on course, from its early days as “wandering Jews” to its growth into a URJ-affiliated congregation with a large campus, a K-12 Religious School and a full schedule of programming for members of all ages.
Kol Ami’s commitment to creating and maintaining an intimate and involved Jewish community is what continues to inspire Elaine’s work at Kol Ami. As Executive Director, Elaine is the gatekeeper of the calendar and involved in just about every aspect of the synagogue’s functioning. She has chaired or been a volunteer on so many Kol Ami committees that it would be more efficient to name those on which she hasn’t served.
When Elaine does take a break from Kol Ami, her passion and first love is being an equestrian and enjoying time with horses. She is also a dog lover and the most popular dog sitter at Kol Ami.
“As an educator, I know that one person cannot shoulder the responsibility for creating an excellent religious school; it takes a congregation. I love to see how many congregants at Kol Ami are invested in the success of the Religious School – the enthusiasm of the people…the energy, the commitment.”
David Monblatt joined Congregation Kol Ami as director of education for the Religious School in June 2012. For David, who grew up in a Reform congregation in Abington, joining Kol Ami as a congregant and educator was like coming home. However, David’s vision for Kol Ami’s Religious School is very different from the traditional religious education David and most of his peers experienced growing up.
A Jewish educator for close to two decades, David has specialized in school transformation for the last nine years. His philosophy rests upon three key tenets: engagement of young people by making their Jewish education relevant; inspiring students through experiential learning; and accountability of educators through specific, measurable objectives.
“A good religious school can give children a strong Jewish identity, strong background of Jewish knowledge, and the skills to participate in any Jewish congregation,” expounds Monblatt, “but if they are to choose to pursue Jewish living and learning, they must continue past their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. That means from a very early age, you must learn what’s really relevant to the children and what motivates and excites them. Their graduation from seventh grade is really a celebration, rather than a end to their Jewish education.”
David’s fulltime career in Jewish education began in New York City, and as a result of not just his Jewish upbringing, but also the tragedy of 9/11 and its impact on the families he knew there. Living in New York at the time, David felt compelled to transform his own life by doing something more purposeful, or as he says, “moreTikun focused.”
Shortly after 9/11, David joined the staff at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, as a founding member of the first fulltime teaching team in the United States for supplementary school education, at Central Synagogue in New York City. Hebrew University described this program as “a bold new archetype for 21st century supplementary schools.” The team there challenged themselves to build a “different religious school,” one where kids wanted to be, and which would change families’ attitudes about coming to school.
“I knew before the first year was over,” says David, “that I wanted to become a religious school director. This was a transformative time in my life, but it was revolutionary in Jewish education, and the five of us on that original team are all now leading programs across the country and bringing that magic to religious schools every day.”
In 2006, David moved to San Francisco to become director of education and outreach for the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF), which produces films and curricula about the Jewish partisans of World War II. A grandson of Holocaust survivors, David worked there to tell the stories of the myriad ways in which Jews resisted the Nazis, including armed resistance, life-saving escape, documentation, and spirituality. During David’s tenure at JPEF, Slingshot Magazine ranked the program as one of the 50 most effective and innovative Jewish organizations in the nation. David’s curriculum on the Jewish partisans is used by schools nationwide, as well as the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Before moving back to the East Coast, David served as director of the Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools Initiative (NESS Initiative), modeled after a Philadelphia program designed to improve religious schools. Concurrently, he served as a congregational school specialist for the Bureau of Jewish Education of San Francisco and director of The Educators’ Council, a professional development program for 23 San Francisco congregational school directors. When offered the chance to move home to Montgomery County in 2009 to take a job as director of congregational learning at Temple Sinai in Dresher, David decided to use his expertise to create change within his own community.
David was attracted to Kol Ami’s size and intimacy, and the active engagement of its congregants. He wants to be, not only a leader at Kol Ami, but also an active participant in the community. This dovetails perfectly with his vision of how a religious school curriculum should unfold.
“It’s not the place of a director to determine what the children should be learning,” says David. “I’ve created a process to harness the ideas and the values of a congregation and mold those into a curriculum. It’s my role to convey what the community wants and implement objectives of the community into the classroom. The kids come into play in understanding what’s relevant and exciting to them. We must have their input in this process.”
David earned a BA in acting and vocal performance with a concentration in education from Syracuse University. Prior to becoming a fulltime Jewish educator, he worked as a stage and film actor in New York City. He is a graduate of Abington High School and the I.M. Wise Program at Gratz College.
“As a dual citizen of Israel and the United States, I love Israel, our culture, and the Hebrew language, and am passionate about making these come alive for future generations.”
Julie Shoshi Braman joined Congregation Kol Ami Religious School team in 2015, to teach the combined sixth and seventh grade class. She brought to the position more than 20 years of experience in Jewish education, ranging from preschool to high school, at Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox institutions. Shoshi says she is impressed with the comprehensive curriculum at Kol Ami, calling it “amazing.” In addition to her teaching position at Kol Ami, Shoshi teaches preschool, third grade, and Arts in the Jewish Community Enrichment, and leads the Junior Congregation for the early childhood program and religious school at a Center City Philadelphia shul.
Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, Shoshi was educated in Jewish day schools through ninth grade. She has a degree in education with certification in art and additional coursework in special needs education and graphic/web design.
In 2005, Shoshi attended a Partnership 2000 teacher training program in Israel and fell in love with the country. She moved to Israel for a time, and returned to the States to be with family.
Shoshi has run her own catering business and brings her love of cooking and baking to the classroom, where she enjoys teaching Jewish cooking to her students. For one of her favorite classes, she had students bring in family holiday recipes, and cook and taste them as they discussed the meaning of the holidays. Shoshi has also used her culinary skills with her students in a volunteer capacity, making home-cooked meals for Aid for Friends in Northeast Philadelphia, an organization providing meals for those in need who are homebound.
In her spare time, Shoshi likes to read, go to the movies and the theatre, listen to music (especially Israeli), improve her fluency in Hebrew, socialize with friends, cook, relax with her cats, plan and manage events, and continuously improve/learn computer and desktop publishing skills.
“All of my Hebrew school teachers were women, and it was really important to me to be a friendly, accessible, funny male teacher with a love of learning about all things about being Jewish–a role model for my students.”
For second grade teacher David Appleton, teaching at Congregation Kol Ami is a little bit like going home. Kol Ami shares a lot of similarities with the congregation in which David grew up, Temple Chesed in Scranton. That’s why David and his family have chosen to join Kol Ami and raise their sons here.
“At Temple Chesed, we were raised with loving kindness and to speak for others who have no voice,” says David “The people here seem to share those values.”
A certified elementary school, middle and high school social studies, and K-12 special education teacher, David joined the teaching staff at Kol Ami in 2014. He is also employed as the program manager and academic advisor for undergraduates at the School of Education at Drexel University.
Committed to lifelong learning, David’s passion for teaching and mentoring is stoked by the “aha” moment. “I love when a student has an aha moment,” says David, “where they surprise themselves or learn something cool that they never expected. I also love when students give me an aha moment, in which I see something in a new perspective.”
David was raised in a Reform household and was actively involved in Jewish youth groups. His own home is interfaith–his wife was raised Catholic—and he and his wife are committed to raising their two sons, Jacob and Matthew, Jewish.
David earned a BA in communications from the University of Scranton, and an MS in education from Drexel University. He enjoys playing the guitar, traveling and exercise, particularly team military obstacle courses, like the Tuff Mudder. He is also an active volunteer, with an intense interest in civic engagement.
“I want to help my students to understand the importance of doing mitzvoth and to see the power of prayer, the excitement of bible stories, and the beauty of Judaism.”
Congregation Kol Ami third-grade teacher Neal Beatus enjoys examining bible stories through a psychological lens. A psychotherapist with almost 20 years of experience, Neal has used this approach to train other therapists. He taught a course he developed, “Psychoanalysis and the Bible,” as part of Congregation Kol Ami’s Continuing Jewish Education for Adults program, and will be offering an additional course this year: “The Book of Job: God, Truth, and Psychoanalysis.”
With support from Rabbi Holin, Neal has presented several d’var Torahs at Kol Ami in the past few years. Last year he helped organize an event featuring representatives of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization of families who have lost loved ones in the Middle East conflict. Their stories of loss and renewal moved all who attended.
Neal graduated from Haverford College with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and Bryn Mawr College with a Master of Social Service.
Neal has been a member of Kol Ami since 2007, along with his wife Ann and their two daughters, Isabelle and Lily. They chose Kol Ami because of its warm, friendly atmosphere, and its welcoming attitude toward interfaith couples.
Neal and his family live in Elkins Park. In his spare time, Neal enjoys camping with his family and reading.
“There’s a Chasidic teaching that every Jewish soul has a spark; the job of the teacher is to kindle that spark. My job is to be a role model and build the type of relationship with these kids that they’re going to trust me enough to let me kindle that flame in them.”
Rabbinical candidate Nathan Weiner, a teacher in Congregation Kol Ami’s Religious School and Confirmation Academy, views his job as far beyond teaching the Aleph Bet or Torah stories. Says Weiner, “”It’s really important that it’s made crystal clear to our students that this whole enterprise of caring about this [Judaism] is because it has a benefit to them – it can provide guidance to them … it makes sense as a driving ethical force, and it’s here for them, the community is here for them, the spirituality is here for them. It’s not about showing up because your parents are making you. What you experience in the classroom here, you can then take with you and contextualize at youth group, at camp, in your life.”
Weiner has spent his career working to help students understand the guidance, depth and dimension their Judaism can bring to their lives. He has taught in several synagogues in the Philadelphia area since coming here to study for the rabbinate at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. In choosing to join the staff at Kol Ami in 2012, Weiner notes his impression that Kol Ami is an intentional community, filled with members who have chosen to forego the larger synagogues in the region for this intimate congregation. Weiner looks forward to finding that same intentionality in the Religious School, with parents who are fully engaged in their children’s Jewish education — a perfect fit for his belief that Jewish learning is a communal process between home and synagogue.
Previously, as assistant principal for a Temple in Falls Church, VA, he engaged the students in such a meaningful way that post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah retention increased by 25% during his tenure there. While there, he also received a grant to create a mentoring program to provide spiritual guidance for his students as it related to their everyday lives This program was recognized in a feature story in Reform Judaism’s monthly education journal, “Torah at the Center,” in August 2009.
Previously Weiner was employed as director of the National Union of Jewish LGBTIQQ Students. While there, he staffed Birthright’s LGBT Israel Trip.
In addition to his teaching and his studies, Weiner works with the premier publisher of supplemental Hebrew school texts in the country, Behrman House, for which he is currently working on his second teachers’ guide.
Weiner is a cum laude graduate of The George Washington University. He resides in Mt. Airy.
There are not many people who can say they love their work after 30 years on the job, but Sheri Cutler can. Sheri is director of Federation Early Learning Services (FELS) Early Learning Center at Congregation Kol Ami, and she is overflowing with unbridled enthusiasm about what she does. “I love the kids, the families and the community,” she says.
Kol Ami’s move into Rodeph Shalom’s former suburban campus in 2006 offered the synagogue its first opportunity to house a nursery school. Familiar with the stellar reputation of Rodeph Shalom’s nursery school and its director – Sheri – Kol Ami found it an easy decision to negotiate to take over the school. Sheri stayed on as director and became a member of Kol Ami.
“I’ve known Rabbi Holin for a long time,” she says. “In fact, he married my husband and me. Elliot and I always hoped we would work together again some day, so this was meant to be.”
Sheri always wanted to work with small children. She graduated from American University with a degree in early childhood and elementary education. While still an undergraduate, she ran a nursery school for the children of the university professors.
At Kol Ami, Sheri teaches the three-year-olds, in addition to overseeing the Early Learning Center program. She is impressed by the warm, welcoming atmosphere at Kol Ami and by the spirit of cooperation. “What struck me when I started here was the degree of volunteerism at the congregation. When there’s a need, everyone just pitches in and helps. It’s wonderful to see.”
Sheri and her husband Jonathan have two children: Jesse and his fiance, Rachel, and daughter, Julie.
“I am enjoying spending time in all the classes and am loving getting to know the children and families at Congregation Kol Ami.”
Joyce Clark is an assistant teacher. Joyce is married and has four grown children.
“Being with the children makes my day. I couldn’t be happier here.”
Barbara Cohen is an assistant teacher in the three-year-old class. Barbara is married and has two grown children.
“I find great pleasure in watching the children grow and change over the year.”
Sherry Cohen is the group leader in the afternoon class. Sherry is married and has two daughters. The family is also active members of Congregation Kol Ami
“I love teaching toddlers, because their brains are like sponges and it is always so exciting to see them learn and develop new skills.”
Diana Goldstein is the lead teacher in the toddler class. Diana is married and has two grown children.
“I love teaching preschoolers because it is wonderful to be a part of shaping their young minds as they grow and mature.”
Jennifer Perry is an assistant teacher in the toddler class. Jennifer is married and her two children became a Bar and Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Kol Ami.
“I love working with children and am thrilled to be part of the Kol Ami family.”
Alexis Snyder is the lead teacher in the four-year-old class. She enjoys spending time with her family, baking, listening to music and playing the piano.