(Photo: January 6th, 2002. The dream realized, the congregation marches our Torahs the five miles from Chestnut Hill to the new synagogue in Roxborough.)
Mishkan Shalom was founded in 1988 when thirty-some families left Congregation Beth Israel in Media, PA. The break came when Rabbi Brian Walt lost a vote of confidence from the congregation following his public expression of criticism of the Israeli government’s actions during the first intifadah.
Those families were joined by an even larger number of households, many of them from the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. (The first year’s membership list includes about 100 households.) In a series of meetings throughout the summer of 1988, members hammered out a Statement of Principles, set up an unusual dues structure, and found a place to worship – a onetime public school building in suburban Havertown that housed a Quaker school. Mishkan Shalom’s formal date of birth is Rosh Hashanah 5749.
From 1988 to 1996, most regular services were held at the Stratford Friends School library, with religious school classes held there and also at a Methodist Church nearby. Yamim Noraim services were held at Swarthmore Friends Meeting and then Main Line Unitarian Church, with bnai mitzvah taking place at a dozen or more different religious institutions around the Delaware Valley.
Mishkan’s membership reflected a wide geographic diversity – with members residing in the far western suburbs to Philadelphia and up into the northwestern fringe of the city. Its members have grown steadily over the years and now stand at just short of 300 households.
Mishkan Shalom quickly developed a reputation as an activist congregation. Its rabbi and many of its members were active in the peace movement in Israel, often providing sponsorship for speakers who could not find a hearing in the mainstream Jewish community. In 1993, when the Oslo Accords were signed, five Mishkan Shalom members, including Rabbi Walt, were invited to witness the White House “handshake” between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat.
In its early years, the congregation was active in the Central American sanctuary movement and, closer to home, helped found the Interfaith Coalition for the General Welfare in the days leading to the implementation of national welfare reform law. Its members have been active in other economic justice and political issues. In 2003, the Board of Directors voted to oppose the war in Iraq and we have continued to find ways to oppose the ongoing fighting. The congregation is a member of NIM, the Northwest Interfaith Movement, and has hosted homeless families in our building for several week periods twice a year. Members of the congregation have joined with parishioners from St. Vincent’s in Germantown to repair the world in community building projects in Central America, New Orleans and other parts of the American South and Philadelphia.
Mishkan also became a thriving congregation with creative services and a growing religious school. Gay and lesbian members are an integral part of the community and of leadership, as are interfaith couples. Rabbi Erin Hirsh became School Director of the Congregational School in 1999.
Rabbi Yael Levy joined Mishkan Shalom in 1994, first as a rabbinic intern and then in a half-time capacity as Associate Rabbi and Rabbi. She was the Rabbi of the congregation during Rabbi Walt’s sabbatical in 1996-1997. She continues as Rabbi working half-time and will assume a new position in the coming year as Rabbinic Director of Spiritual Development.
Beginning in 1989, the congregation began looking for a more permanent home and in 1992 began its first Capital Campaign. The purchase of a home in the Andorra section of Roxborough and subsequent plans to renovate it for a synagogue were thwarted when a zoning variance was overturned by the Commonwealth Court in Pennsylvania.
In the meantime, having outgrown its quarters in Havertown, the congregation moved to the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. It rented space at the Crefeld School, a private school in Philadelphia, for its offices and religious school. For its religious services, the congregation shared space with Chestnut Hill United Methodist church.
In 1998, the congregation purchased a 150 year old stone textile mill in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia and began another Capital Campaign to raise funds for renovations. After some delay, and with the building not completely finished, members of Mishkan Shalom marched with their Torahs into the new space on Jan. 6, 2002. Extensive renovations to the site were carried out in 2005 and 2006.
In November 2002, founding rabbi Brian Walt announced his intention to leave the congregation in June 2003 to move with his family to Martha’s Vineyard, MA. The Board of Directors appointed a Transition Team to guide the rabbinic transition period for the congregation. At the team’s recommendation, the Board decided to hire an interim rabbi. After a search, Rabbi Linda Holtzman, RRC Director of Practical Rabbinics and a Mishkan Shalom member, was chosen. Rabbi Holtzman served for one year.
Rabbi Jeff Sultar was hired as the congregation’s Senior Rabbi the following year. During his tenure, the congregation embarked on an intensive study of its governance, financial and bnai mitzvah policies and practices. We have made considerable progress implementing new procedures and operating guidelines as a result of this very significant effort. Additionally, the congregation engaged in a very intensive visioning study in Fall 2006 in order to articulate priorities for Mishkan in the coming years based on the three pillars of its Statement of Principles, Avodah, Torah and Tikkun Olam/G’milut Hasadim.
One of the outcomes of this visioning process was a new rabbinic and staff configuration. A new position, Coordinator of Youth and Spiritual Life, was created, Rabbi Yael Levy took on the new title of Rabbinic Director of Spiritual Development. In August, 2007, Rabbi Linda Holzman became Mishkan Shalom's Senior Rabbi.
Above: Makhelat Micha-el Choir - Mishkan Shalom
Below: Janice Hamer, Choir Director