EDUCATION AT KENESETH ISRAEL, 1849-2019
Education has always been a primary focus of Congregation Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Two years after the formation of the synagogue, a Religious School was founded in 1849. Six years later, in 1855, KI embraced Reform Judaism and launched the first Jewish Confirmation program in the Philadelphia region. Confirmation, from the start was co-ed.
The congregation conducted its business in German from 1847 to the 1888. In 1863, it built a new sanctuary at 6th & Brown Streets to accommodate its continuing growth under the radical reformer, Rabbi David Einhorn, who preached in German. The new building held classes in its vestry. Just before moving to N. Broad Street in 1891, KI, under the leadership of Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf reestablished the Jewish Publication Society which operated briefly in Philadelphia before the Civil War but by 1888 was revitalized and the leading publisher of Jewish literature in the United States.
KI built a massive new building on N. Broad Street above Columbia Ave near the then emerging Temple University. The synagogue increasingly viewed itself as an educational institution with a broad mission. In 1892, opened the “KI Free Library” for public use and in 1896 was the principle sponsor of the new National Jewish Farm School in Doylestown, now the Delaware Valley University. It is reported that women stated teaching in the KI Sunday School for the first time in the late 19th century despite the presence of Rebecca Gratz’s Hebrew School Society in Philadelphia since 1838.
In 1913, KI built a large annex known as the Alumni Building on the south side of its large, main Sanctuary to house its growing school and Library. Today, it is Rock Hall, part of the Music Department of Temple University. In 1938, the Elinore Kohn Tot Lot was built by the congregation to provide an urban recreation area for children. It also was the site of a congregational summer camp for little kids and the precursor to the KI Preschool.
The post World War II shift to the suburbs resulted in KI opening a school on the grounds of Temple University near Cheltenham Ave and Sedgwick St as well as a young adult center on High School Road in Elkins Park. The new Elkins Park campus on Old York Road opened in 1956. Significant funding for a three story Religious School building was given by Samuel and Goldie Paley, cigar manufacturers, and parents of William S. Paley, founder of CBS. A Preschool with a sunken garden/playground opened in 1957 with room for over 100 students.
The school population expanded during the 1950s and 1960s and may have reached 2,000 students with 10th Grade Confirmation classes of nearly 200 students. The synagogue library was endowed by the Meyers Family in 1961. Three years later, a special needs school program was established. An addition to the school including a large auditorium and kitchen was added in 1967. The KI Archives was established in 1974 and is currently housed in a climate controlled room adjacent to the Meyers Library.
Change and adaptation continued to mark the last quarter of the 20th century. An Adult Bnai Mitzvah program was added in 1976. The appointment of Rabbi Ruth N. Sandberg, an alumna of the Reconstructionist College with a Ph.D. in rabbinics from the University of Pennsylvania, as principal of the school proved to be controversial. In 1984, the Temple Judea Museum was established at KI adding to the visual arts program of the congregation..
The “Keneseth Israel Philadelphia Archives and History” (KIPAH) collection has extensive original documentation and digitalized data on the education experience at KI including student enrollment information, a photograph collection and internal school publications.