Worlds away in Philadelphia’s middle class African-American West Oak Lane neighborhood is a black-Jewish congregation that has only been headed by women. Indeed, when Hebrew Union College announced that Stanton was to become the world’s first female African-American rabbi, Debra Bowen was bemused. The 63-year-old rabbi of Temple Beth’El has been behind the pulpit since 2001. She became rabbi when her predecessor—and mother—passed away. Louise Elizabeth Dailey, the synagogue’s founder, had served as its spiritual leader for 50 years.
Born into a Baptist family in Maryland—her father was a minister—Dailey was working as a housekeeper for a Jewish family in Philadelphia when she recognized that she had a deep spiritual—and, she believed, historical—connection to Judaism. She decided to observe the Sabbath on Saturdays and to keep kosher, and soon began holding weekly services in her living room. When the crowd grew too large, the group decided to build a synagogue. “My mother had the ability to break down Torah and simplify it,” says Bowen. “She could quote Torah chapter and verse—and she reached people.”
Under Dailey, the congregation wasn’t interested in becoming part of the white Jewish world. Back in the 1950s, “people of color who practiced Judaism were painted in a very negative light,” says Bowen, who recalls that publishers refused even to send prayer books to the congregation. “The doors were closed until we met Rabbi Greenberg.” In the mid-1990s, the revered Conservative rabbi and author Sidney Greenberg, discovered Temple Beth’El near his former home. “He went in and he kept coming back,” says Bowen. “He was extremely instrumental in introducing us to mainstream Judaism, he declared that we were Jews, and helped us acquire siddurim (prayer books).”
Since Bowen took over, Beth’El has deepened its connections to the broader Jewish community. About four years ago, the synagogue was able to order siddurim directly from the publisher for the first time. And earlier this year, the synagogue received its first Torah from Israel—something that it had previously been unable to obtain due to questions about its authenticity. “I feel like the times are changing, that Jews are finally ready to accept us and the fact that Judaism is not monolithic,” says Bowen. “There are different ways to practice Judaism. The commonality is that we believe in one God, and there are too few of us to spend time fighting each other.”
The congregation’s integration into the mainstream has coincided with its shedding of Christian rituals. Some critics still refer to it as a congregation “in transition.” But Jon Cutler, a Reconstructionist rabbi who teaches a class called “Jews on the Fringes” at Gratz College, a transdenominational Jewish school in Philadelphia, says that “a good 90 percent of its [several hundred] members are truly Conservative Jews in keeping kosher and Shabbat.”
Cutler held several joint services with Bowen and her congregation while serving as rabbi of Tiferes B’nai Israel in Warrington, Pennsylvania, and is very enthusiastic about the synagogue. So is Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro, another Philadelphia-based Reconstructionist rabbi and a professor at Temple University, who brings students to hear Bowen talk about her Jewish identity. She says that the services “incorporate traditional Sabbath liturgy and Torah-reading mixed with inspiring African-American traditions” and create a “spiritually powerful and uplifting worship experience.”
Bowen is proud that Beth’El is thriving. “I’m not in a position to tell mainstream Judaism how to behave,” she says, “but at some point they’re going to wake up and realize that we are growing and having children and raising them Jewishly. Mainstream Judaism is not growing as rapidly as we are,” she says. “Every Saturday at our synagogue, 20 to 30 children under the age of 10 get up and sing Adon Olam like you’ve probably never heard it. It’s Jewish soul,” she says. “They rock the house.”