Keneseth Israel (“Congregation of Assembly of Israel”), founded in March 1847, was the fourth congregation to be established by the expanding Jewish community of Philadelphia. Orthodox in observance at first, KI adopted reform in 1855, and thus became the first progressive congregation in Philadelphia, and only the fifth in the entire country, to take the way of radical experimentation. For almost forty years, KI was the only reform congregation in Philadelphia.
The term Keneseth Israel is frequently used in the midrash to represent the entire people of Israel as a religious entity. We still hold to the goals of our founders: to maintain a synagogue as a center of worship, religious education and communal gathering; to foster a “living Judaism” not only in the synagogue, but also in the homes and lives of its members and their families; and to adjust the teachings and practices of old to the needs of each new generation of American Jews. Rich in years and distinguished in history, we maintain our dedication to the creative survival of Judaism as an eternal “light to the nations.”
KI has been led by only eight senior rabbis through its long and distinguished history. Dr. David Einhorn, one of the greatest Jewish intellectuals of his day, a firebrand abolitionist and author of the prayer book which formed the original basis of the Union Prayer Book, was our Rabbi from 1861 to 1866. He was succeeded by Dr. Samuel Hirsch, the former Chief Rabbi of Luxembourg, who was both a scholar and a pioneer in Jewish social services in Philadelphia. Dr. Hirsch was followed by Dr. Joseph Krauskopf, a member of the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College. Under Dr. Krauskopf, KI became the largest synagogue in the United States. Krauskopf founded the National Farm School (Delaware Valley College) in 1896 and attracted large crowds to his Sunday lectures.
In 1924, Dr. William H. Fineshriber was called to the pulpit of Keneseth Israel. He was the first American-born rabbi to serve the congregation and introduced both the Union Prayer Book and the Bar Mitzvah to KI. (Left) Rabbi Fineshriber presents Albert Einstein honorary membership to Keneseth Israel. Dr. Fineshriber was succeeded in 1949 by Dr. Bertram W. Korn, who grew up in Keneseth Israel. Dr. Korn was the first rabbi in American History to have been promoted to “flag” rank as a Rear Admiral in the Navy. Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin, elected the sixth Senior Rabbi in 1980, served as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1995-1997. Rabbi Bradley N. Bleefeld served the Congregation from June, 1997, until June, 2000.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman became KI’s eighth Senior Rabbi in July, 2001. He earned his Ph.D. in American Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has written several books and numerous articles. Rabbi Sussman is active in various scholarly organizations and serves as president of the Cheltenham Area Multifaith Council. He is also a Trustee of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and teaches Jewish History at Gratz College.
Other staff at KI includes: Cantor Amy Levy came to KI from Tulsa, OK, in 2004. She holds a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from the University of Kansas and graduated from HUC-JIR (New York) in 2000 as a cantor. Our Director of Religious Education is Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler (HUC-JIR, New York, 2003), who also holds a Master of Arts in Jewish Education from the Los Angeles branch of HUC. The director of the Richard E. Rudolph, Jr. Preschool, Beth Berman has her master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from the University of Pennsylvania. Brian Rissinger, our Executive Administrator, joined our staff in July 2006 from Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, PA. Brian holds a bachelor of science degree in psychology.
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