Rabbi Kyle Savitch (’21) Holds Both Jewish Tradition and Modern Sensibilities in His Hands with Kehillat Harlem
October 31, 2022
By Lipaz Avigal and Aaron Simon Gross in The Uptowner
On a recent Tuesday night, 50 Jews sing the hymn “Adon Olam” on the ground floor of a Harlem brownstone. As is common in orthodox congregations, they are divided by gender, the men’s section curling around a makeshift altar and the women’s section merging into the kitchen. They’re separated by a low table covered with a red cloth. Behind the table, one congregant prays in a nonbinary section.
“We wanted to create a space that offered something different, that expressed liberal progressive values and felt truly inclusive regardless of observance, denominational affiliation, gender identity, sexuality, race,” said Kyle Savitch, 29. Frilly “tzitzit” — Jewish ritual fringes — peek out from beneath his button-down.
The rabbi of Kehillat Harlem, he is leading an unusually inclusive Jewish community. “Walk in and see how many variations of practice there are, how many interfaith couples, how many queer people. All these groups that are underrepresented in synagogues,” he said.
Kehillat Harlem emerged when a rabbi at Old Broadway Synagogue was asked to resign in 2017, according to interviews with former Old Broadway members. He had been a “vocal ally” to the LGBTQ community after a close family member came out as transgender, said Eric Plaks, a former member and part of the Kehillat Harlem founding team.
“In the orthodox world, his stance was considered evocative and outrageous,” said Plaks, who fought to keep the rabbi employed. “We were very active in the shul, but we lost.”
He and several other Old Broadway members decided to form their own community.
They first prayed in a garage on West 133rd Street, pushing gym equipment to the side. Later, they held services and events at nearby parks and at the brewery Harlem Hops. When COVID hit, they bundled up to gather outdoors in below-freezing temperatures.