Big Tent, Big Heart: Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings inclusion to Philadelphia's Kol Tzedek

In “Kol Tzedek’s New Rabbi Challenges Stereotypes” from May 2016, Liz Spikol provides background on Philly’s Kol Tzedek and talks with their new rabbi, Ari Lev Fornari.

West Philadelphia has been home to the Jewish Reconstructionist synagogue of Kol Tzedek for the last 10 years*, founded by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle-Herrmann from a small gathering in her home, building it into the carefully tended congregation of 140+ families.

Rabbi Lauren made the announcement earlier this year that she would be leaving her beloved shul to accept a position with the Society for Jewish Advancement in New York, leaving the congregation dizzied in the new search for a successor.

In Kol Tzedek’s search for a suitable replacement, an interim rabbi was selected, allowing for more depth in the search and potential for feedback.

Finalists for the position spent a weekend each leading services, Torah school, and adult education as an audition, providing the committees with valuable feedback from the community itself. In the end, the position was offered to Rabbi Fornari: director of the Boston Area Jewish Education Program, part-time prison chaplain, and a person of transmasculine and genderqueer experience.

In the interview, Rabbi Fornari describes what called him to rabbinical work:

I will say that I trace some of my roots to the fact that one of the only out queer people I knew as a young person was my rabbi. My synagogue was really one of the only places in my world where I had queer role models. So I really am grateful for that.

On being asked about feeling responsibility to represent transgender people, Fornari responds,

I don’t feel a responsibility to represent any one aspect of my identity. But I also know that being trans and genderqueer in 2016 is a significant part of who I am. It’s no small thing that I’m a transmasculine white person in this moment, and how different so many experiences are for trans women of color in this moment. In that way, I don’t take the privilege that I’m afforded for granted. ... But it’s certainly not all of who I am as a rabbi.

Spikolasks how Fornari plans to handle members who may not be comfortable with his identity, and Fornari answers beautifully:

I really believe that strength comes from moving through and across our differences and being willing to hold fear and loss and complexity and see our humanity through all of that. I want to cultivate what I’m calling the big tent but also the big heart of Kol Tzedek.

Fornari also expresses excitement for the opportunity to grow and thrive with Kol Tzedek:

I knew going in that justice was a focus at Kol Tzedek and that’s part of what drew me to it. At the heart of it I see Kol Tzedek as a place where we can live into our personal and collective healing and transformation and liberation.

Read the Spikol’s full article, “Kol Tzedek’s New Rabbi Challenges Stereotypes” in the Jewish Exponent, and learn more about Philadelphia’s Kol TzedekReconstructionist synagogue on their website.