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“I believe that we are surrounded by blessings. I try to live in this constant state of awareness. Congregation Kol Ami has brought out the best in me because it is here that I have been able to fully develop my Jewish sensibilities, and to do so with passion and joy.”
Every synagogue is shaped to a great extent by its spiritual leaders; in the case of Congregation Kol Ami, however, it would not be exaggerating to say the congregation exists because of Rabbi Elliot Holin. It was his energetic and creative approach to Judaism that led the congregation’s founders to gather around him to launch Kol Ami in 1994, and it is Rabbi Holin’s warmth and dynamism that continues to attract and inspire new generations well into the congregation’s second decade.
The Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion summed up Rabbi Holin’s qualities in 1999 when it honored him as an “innovative rabbi whose spirit and vision motivated the creation of his congregation, who has combined pastoral devotion with the skills of a communal leader and has done pioneering work in finding new ways of bringing religion to countless people, and whose spiritual leadership has brought healing and positive religious direction to many.”
Certainly the hundreds of families whose lives he has touched – throughout the Delaware Valley and beyond – would agree. But at Congregation Kol Ami we know him not only as a tireless teacher and caring pastor, but also as a devoted friend, a participant in countless simchas and important family transitions.
Indeed, family is central both to our congregation and to Rabbi Holin, whose own family has been a part of Kol Ami since its founding. He and his wife, Susan, are active parents as well as congregation leaders, sending sons Jonathan, David, and Joshua through the Religious School, Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation programs. As long-time congregants well know, family was and is central to Rabbi Holin’s own development as a teacher, scholar and innovator within the Jewish community.
“I have been blessed,” he has written. “My parents fled Vienna just before Kristallnacht in November of 1938. They made their way to London, and then to America. … Our home was defined by adherence to kashrut, benching licht over the Shabbat candles, and Kiddush… and though they veered away from Orthodox theology, they sought ways to affirm Jewish values and found them in the Reform Movement. I had the best of both worlds: affinity for tradition and a liberal Jewish education. One bridge would bring me closer to my parents and faith, and the other bridge would enable me to stake a claim to my identity as a first generation American. …”
It was a bridge that also stretched from coast to coast: after graduation from the University of California and the Hebrew Union College, where he was ordained in 1974, Rabbi Holin served in pulpits as far apart as Pittsburgh and Los Angeles before settling in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s. Along the way he earned a nationwide reputation as an innovator who has brought religion to people in a host of creative ways. Under his leadership, Kol Ami has established such traditions as the annual Tikun Olam Award for those who build bridges and strengthen the community, Family Camp weekends that bring congregants together, adult B’nai Mitzvah classes, and fasts to raise consciousness and funds for those in need.
Rabbi Holin’s work has been recognized through a number of communal awards, including the Union of Reform Judaism’s Social Justice Award, the United Negro College Fund’s Distinguished Leadership Award, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations’ Human Rights Award, the National Conference of Christians and Jews’ Brotherhood-Sisterhood Award, and the Jewish Labor Committee of Philadelphia’s Human Rights Award.
Rabbi Holin has served on the Union of Reform Judaism’s National Commission on Social Action, its National Commission on Interreligious Affairs, and its National Commission on the Jewish Family. He has been chairperson of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ National Commission on the Rabbi’s Family. In addition, he has served on the Philadelphia Boards of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network and the American Jewish Congress.
Rabbi Holin also serves as police chaplain for the Cheltenham Township Police Department. He participates in monthly ride-alongs to develop relationships with police officers, attends seminars with them, and is available for counseling, with the goal of continuing to strengthen community relations.
A man of seemingly endless enthusiasm, Rabbi Holin has led congregational trips to Israel and Cuba, organized “Mitzvah Days” of caring and service, and inspired many of Kol Ami’s young people to become actively involved in the Jewish community. It has been, as he says, a uniquely fulfilling journey: “With Kol Ami, I have finally found the fully expressed, joyful dimension of my rabbinate.”
The feeling is mutual.