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Congregation Begins Search for New Rabbi
Elkins Park, PA – (January 11, 2017) – Congregation Kol Ami founding rabbi Elliot J. Holin will retire in July of 2018. Rabbi Holin, 70, has been the spiritual leader of Kol Ami since its founding in 1994, and will continue to lead the congregation for the next 18 months.
Kol Ami is a caring, intimate and dynamic reform synagogue that practices inclusiveness, acceptance, learning, and social action. In both a letter and email to members this week, the synagogue’s board of trustees announced the Rabbi’s decision and began an engagement process which will include the entire congregation in its work to find a successor to the beloved rabbi.
“Our congregation has been sustained and nurtured through the commitment of so many people who believe in one another, in the creative power of change, and in our pledge to ensure Jewish continuity through the examples of our lives and the education of our children–the next generation,” said Rabbi Holin. “This transition is Kol Ami’s opportunity to do what it does best: to embrace change and affirm a desire to celebrate Jewish traditions, ceremonies and a connection to God and one another.”
“As is his way, Rabbi Holin has given all of us an incredible gift by providing us with so much time to make this important transition,” said Shelley Chamberlain, president of Kol Ami.
It is vital to him that we thoughtfully, transparently and communally work together to find his successor. Under Rabbi Holin’s leadership, Kol Ami is a wonderful institution, full of love and caring with a community that has a deep set of shared values. It is those values that define Kol Ami, and it is upon those values, that together, we will find someone to serve as a new spiritual leader for the Congregation.”
Congregation Kol Ami, located on High School Road in Elkins Park, focuses upon building positive Jewish experiences, making clergy and the Torah accessible, and forging connections with our community of nearly 200 members.
Kol Ami means “Voice of My People” in Hebrew and speaks to our goal of truly being here for each other. Our congregation was founded in 1994 as a Reform synagogue with the goal of creating and sustaining an intimate and purposeful Jewish community.
February 22, 2017 (Original article sourced to URJ)
In 2014, Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA, hosted a “Kindness Counts” conference that focused on welcoming LGBTQ Jews to the community. Recently, a small group of congregational leaders decided it was time for a second gathering, this time focusing on inclusion of trans and non-binary Jews in synagogue life.
We moved quickly. With approval from the rabbi and board, the three co-chairs – two of whom are trans activists and one of whom is also trans – assembled a planning committee and “Kindness Counts Bet: Moving Beyond the Gender Boxes, Embracing Transgender and Non-Binary Jews, Their Loved Ones and Allies in the Mishkan” was born.
Next, we revisited the mission and vision statement from the original conference and updated it for the new one, asking and answering these and other questions:
Together with our co-sponsor, J.PROUD, a community-building organization for Jewish LGBTQ individuals and families in greater Philadelphia, we planned to focus on the “T” (gender, rather than sexuality) in LGBTQ, striving to create a vibrant space in which participants from synagogues throughout the region, across movements, and of all genders and gender expressions could learn about “inclusion” and how it differs from “welcome.”
Jewish values (midot) and commandments (mitzvot) would guide the content of the programming. Some examples include hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger), cheshbon hanefesh (taking account of oneself and one’s relationship with God, b’tzelem Elohim (all are created in the image of God), tikkun olam (repair of the world), and kavod (respect) for all who walk in our midst – regardless of gender identity, gender expression, or other factors.
Ultimately, participants would, we hoped, understand the unique challenges transgender and non-binary people face when it comes to inclusion. Moreover, participants would become more self-aware, as they continued their own dialogue and planning to make their synagogue communities safe, spiritual, diverse, social, and educational Jewish homes for transgender and non-binary members, visitors, and all who enter their doors
Because our committee members were of mixed gender identity and sexuality — lesbian, trans, and straight allies – we needed to educate ourselves. Therefore, we devoted the first 15 minutes of our early meetings to this endeavor, hearing from two co-chairs who are well versed on these topics. In addition, we reviewed the GLAAD glossary together and shared other books, articles, and resources, creating a space in which it was safe to ask questions and plan.
When it arrived, the conference had 75 attendees and began with a panel discussion among five volunteers of different gender identities, expressions, and ages, all of whom shared stories from their respective journeys. The questions and answers that followed sparked a rich, touching dialogue that set a positive tone for the remainder of the day.
Dynamic and scholarly rabbis and educators, as well as experts in health, spirituality, and mental health, some of whom are trans or non-binary, taught the conference workshops. Some sessions were geared specifically for teens, while others focused on creating inclusive spaces, making the classroom safe, celebrating kids’ gender identities in informal Jewish education, inclusion rituals, supporting trans individuals throughout their journeys, and creating action plans for change (Na’aseh v’Nishma – You will do and you will learn later).
In addition to J.PROUD and our own leadership team and congregation, we were privileged to have help planning and implementing this conference from an array of individuals and groups, including Keshet, a national organization working for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life; the leaders of the URJ’s Audacious Hospitality team; The Tent, the communication and collaboration platform for Reform Movement leaders; and the many professionals who volunteered to teach and crafted their sessions to reflect the conference’s mission and vision.
Many participants were from our own congregation, generating tremendous excitement, motivation, and mobilization within the Kol Ami community. Although our by-laws are already gender neutral (an outcome of our original “Kindness Counts” conference), a new LGBTQ initiative is emerging as an ongoing synagogue committee. In addition, the board has received training around some of the conference’s main take-aways, our teens are participating in workshops related to trans and non-binary issues, and several teachers in our religious school are making methodological changes based on what they heard and learned that day.
Jane Tausig and her wife, Abby Binder, (pronouns: she/her/hers), are members of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA. A co-chair of Kindness Counts Bet, Jane also chaired the inaugural Kindness Counts conference in 2014.
Transgender and Jewish in Philly? ‘It’s not so simple when Moshe becomes Marsha’
March 14, 2017 (Original article sourced to Philly.com)
In the last few years, the battle over transgender rights has roiled school districts, courtrooms, statehouses, and the national political stage, most recently via a Trump administration directive rolling back protections for transgender students in schools.
But in the Orthodox Jewish community, where gender roles are starkly defined and synagogues seat men and women separately, trans rights are advancing much more quietly, often through discreet conversations with people like Saundra Epstein of Elkins Park.
Epstein, an Orthodox Jew and advocate for LGBTQ acceptance, noticed some rabbis were open to accepting transgender congregants — but not to publicizing it. So, if a trans person is seeking a synagogue, Epstein acts as matchmaker and finds a rabbi willing to take the person in.
“I personally do not want our children or community members to feel like there is no place for them in the Orthodox community,” Epstein said. “That said, it’s not so simple when Moshe becomes Marsha. For the community, it’s very, very challenging.”
It’s something, though, that more Jewish communities than ever are grappling with, publicly and privately. Some have taken stands for transgender rights: the Union for Reform Judaism adopted a broad inclusion policy in 2015, and local synagogues have united to form J.Proud, a consortium of groups committed to advancing LGBTQ inclusion. Last year, the West Philadelphia congregation Kol Tzedek became perhaps the first in the region to hire a transgender rabbi, Ari Lev Fornari.
And over the last year, more synagogues have been asking for trans sensitivity trainings for staff and members, said Phoenix Schneider, program director of the nonprofit Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ LGBTQ initiative.
“In the synagogues, a kid will come out as saying they don’t identify within a binary or they don’t know if they’re a girl or a boy. So, they’re saying, ‘What do we do next? How do we support this young person?’ ” Schneider said. “That’s when they tend to bring someone like me out to do a training.”
Schneider believes it’s a moral imperative, given the high rates of suicide and self-harm by transgender young people.
“Talking about gender outside a binary means that young people can feel safe expressing that they may not fit into this binary system,” Schneider said. “I recently did a workshop with fourth graders, and a kid came out as nonbinary and used ‘they/them’ as their pronoun.”
On a recent evening, Schneider met with a youth-leadership group comprising 11th– and 12th-grade students from Congregation Kol Ami and Temple Beth Am in Elkins Park.
The goal for the evening, Schneider said: “It’s important to think about how we can be the best support possible to LGBTQ friends and loved ones, and an advocate and an ally.”
The conversation encompassed topics you may not remember from Sunday school.
“How many genders are there?” Schneider asked. The students knew to answer, “Infinite.”
They talked about how you can tell people’s gender by looking at them (you can’t), whether the word dyke is offensive (depends on the context), and the politics of gender-policing bathroom use.
“Why not let people use whatever bathroom they feel comfortable in? Who cares that much?” asked Eleanor Streitwieser, 17, of Elkins Park.
Kol Ami recently launched an LGBTQ inclusion initiative, as a parallel to existing initiatives around special-needs and interfaith inclusion, said Morgan Selkirk of Huntingdon Valley, who is leading the effort. She said early steps were to get “all-gender” bathroom signs, update the congregation’s nondiscrimination policy, and revise the congregation’s paperwork, removing male/female check boxes and replacing mother and father on school forms with parent 1 and parent 2.
“It’s about making a safe space for everyone,” she said, making them feel not just welcome but also included.
In Orthodox congregations, change comes slower, Epstein said.
She directs the Welcoming Shuls project at Eshel, an organization advocating acceptance for LGBTQ people in Orthodox communities. Through that work, she has surveyed more than 50 Orthodox synagogues around the United States and Canada. Sixty percent of respondents said members could sit where they liked; others said that wouldn’t always be the case.
“You sat in the men’s section, now you’re sitting in the women’s section. How does that play out? Some people just can’t deal with it.”
And the accommodations for LGBTQ congregants may not suit everyone.
For instance, even if a person’s gender change is recognized by a synagogue, it might mean that the individual’s marriage will be deemed dissolved by an Orthodox community that rejects same-sex marriage.
Or consider Epstein’s 29-year-old daughters, identical twins who are lesbians. One of them recently had a ceremony to celebrate her commitment to a life partner, but it was not a Jewish marriage.
“The ceremony was essentially an exclusive business association,” Epstein said.
Still, transgender people are advocating for change and, in some cases, achieving it.
Fornari, the rabbi at Kol Tzedek and cofounder of TransTorah.org, has helped develop a list of best practices for inclusive synagogues, from installing gender-neutral bathrooms to avoiding the gendered language that is traditionally part of religious services to focusing on including gender-variant people in leadership roles.
“I think there has been transformative change. It doesn’t mean that my hire as a trans or gender-queer person wasn’t challenging for people,” Fornari said. “But my sitting as a congregational rabbi feels like the result of social movement and transformation.”
Samantha Melamed, Staff Writer, Philly.com
For those of you unable to attend Sunday’s congregational meeting, I wanted to share the wonderful news that members voted to install Rabbi Leah Berkowitz as our next rabbi.
I also share with you the video thank you Rabbi Berkowitz prepared for us and was played during the meeting. This short video begins to capture why we are excited about the next chapter in “Our Story” together.
I cannot thank enough the Bridge to the Future committees that have worked so hard over the past 18 months and will continue to do so over the coming 18-24 months.
We look forward to sharing more special moments together at the upcoming Celebration and Continuity Shabbats.
Thank you for your past and future input and support for our congregation’s Bridge to the Future.
All the best,
Watch Rabbi Berkowitz’s introduction video