I was in Philadelphia during the first weekend in November to attend Kidney Week. That is the PR name given to the annual meeting of the American Society of Nephrology. I attend the conference just about every year and I especially enjoy when it is held in Philadelphia. I grew up in Philadelphia and few things make me smile more than walking on the street where the majority of the people are proudly wearing an article of clothing – a hat, a sweatshirt, scarf, pants – emblazoned with the Eagles mascot.
For me, the 2023 ASN meeting had a special resonance. It was an opportunity to present the topline findings of a clinical trial that I had worked on for 5 years. There was great anticipation that the results would lead to the regulatory approval of the drug to treat the specific kidney disease, that it would be the first medication to achieve this distinction. However, when the final results were analyzed, the findings were not definitive. There was a clear trend toward better preservation of kidney function but the results were inconclusive as judged by established statistical criteria. After all that effort, there was still considerable uncertainty. Is the drug a useful treatment for the disease? Are there subgroups of patients for whom it might be more effective? You can read all the excruciating details here (https://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJMoa2308550?articleTools=true).
But the scientific uncertainty I felt about my clinical research was balanced by a completely different Jewish experience. On Shabbat morning, I joined my fellow nephrologists (an energetic colleague at Johns Hopkins has organized us into NephroChevra) at a 7 AM (!) minyan. After davening, I headed off to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to learn more about kidneys. I did not stay until the end of the morning session. Instead, I left early and walked a little more than 1.5 miles to 1321 Juniper Street. I wanted to see what davening was like at the South Street Shtiebel headed by Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter.
I knew about Rabbanit Dasi’s shul and I knew that she was a very special person. I knew that her shul had been established thanks to a visionary gifts from a number of people including Yeshivat Maharat board members, who recognized that Rabbanit Dasi was a unique talent and who deserved a bona fide opportunity to lead a shul. I had a mental image of what the Shtiebel would look like and what I would encounter when I entered it. But nothing prepared me for what I actually saw as I entered the room. It was a bright sun-lit space filled from wall to wall with chairs. There were over 100 people in the room, nearly 50 men and 70 women with cute children running all over the place. There were older people and singles, people in suits and people wearing Birkenstocks. I arrived in time for the end of davening and announcements. Audrey (my wife) was there the whole time and she said the traditional tefilla was filled with beautiful singing, an interesting dvar Torah that was a bit too long, and NO talking. The announcements channeled Rabbi Avi Weiss’ openness to each member of the shul. People were invited to introduce events and programs that were going to happen in the coming weeks in the community – learning groups and pro-Israel rallies. Kiddush followed and everyone stayed, filled their plates, and ate together. They welcomed Audrey and me in a way I am sure they welcome every new face that enters the shul. It was a room filled with good cheer and hope, just three weeks after the massacre of October 7th.
What I was witness to was a community that had formed spontaneously and that had accepted the rabbinic leadership of an extraordinary woman. They had created a shared spiritual space in which to come together and experience their Judaism individually and collectively. I am sure there are disagreements about details of the tefilla and shul management. But they were unified in their commitment to success of the Shtiebel and confident that Rabbanit Dasi was the right person for their community. I am absolutely certain that the Shtiebel will thrive and grow because it provides an opportunity for the members to belong to a shul of their choosing, one that that is meaningful to each and every one of them. Hopefully, we can identify other women who share Rabbanit Dasi’s aspiration to lead a shul and provide them with the support and wherewithal to create them in receptive communities like South Philadelphia. I am certain that this is a workable model to enable women to assume leadership pastoral positions. 1321 Juniper Street is proof that it works.