KI's new rabbi is eager to settle into 'vibrant place to be a Jew'

By Carl Zebrowski
Editor of Hakol

The Lehigh Valley was not a surprising landing place for Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg. Not only does she come to the region from less than an hour south in Plymouth Meeting, but also she’s very familiar with the sort of situation found here.

“I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri,” she said. “So I know what it’s like to be a part of a small but mighty Jewish community.”

Rabbi Tornberg is the new rabbi of Congregation Keneseth Israel, having started in that role on July 1, replacing Rabbi Phil Cohen, KI’s interim rabbi who is now settling into a new post in Southern California (see this issue’s Clergy Column for his farewell message). “The warmth of KI is obvious when you enter the building and interact with the staff and the members,” Tornberg said. “There is such creativity and commitment in this community. They are an inspiration. There is a yearning here for making experiences of meaning and spiritual connection, of learning and social justice.”

Tornberg comes with experience from synagogues elsewhere in Pennsylvania and in California, New York State (including Brooklyn) and Ohio. For 15 years, she has served as a “rabbi-educator,” meaning that she filled the traditional congregational role and also directed the religious education program.

The KI position and support staff allow her to focus on the traditional role. “I am grateful to have such a wonderful partner at the helm of KI’s education program in our education director Alex Malanych,” she said. “Their talents and skills make it possible for me to focus on the growth of my rabbinic leadership.”

Malanych has been education director for almost a year. A third part of the congregation’s leadership is also new: John Perry, who just took over as executive director after the retirement of Vikki Dunn. “Together, the three of us are a brand-new team, which is exciting,” Rabbi Tornberg said.

She’s eager to settle into this well-established community and congregation with her husband, David, and four kids (and dog, Levi). “The deep sense of history here is palpable,” she said. “Like Moses, KI has been around for 120 years.”

One of her first actions on arriving at KI was to start a weekly Saturday morning Torah study with food and learning and a minyan for those who want to recite kaddish. More changes will follow. “I do have lots of ideas,” she said, “but I believe that a new rabbi’s first job is to begin to build a relationship with the congregation, so that in moments of sorrow and of joy we can build more meaningful rituals and experiences.”

Whatever she decides to do after that, she’ll be building on what’s come before her. “The Lehigh Valley has the Jewish resources and infrastructure that make it a vibrant place to be a Jew and also is small enough for a new rabbi to build important connections and to be part of making important things happen in the area.”