The following article, published in the Rittenhouse Square Revue Magazine, features Mekor Habracha and Rabbi Hirsch as a relative newcomer to the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood:
(…) While film festivals and art exhibitions may hold a broader appeal for Jewish as well as non-Jewish audiences, religious services in synagogues face more complex challenges in trying to attract and retain the young and encourage them to practice Judaism as a way of life. Center City alone is home to over seven synagogues including Rittenhouse Square’s own Beth Zion (300 S 18th St.), Leyv Ha-Ir (1906 S. Rittenhouse Square), and the relative newcomer Mekor Habracha, (127 S. 22nd Street).
We had a chance to sit with Rabbi Eli Hirsch of Mekor Habracha – a synagogue initiated in 1999 through the outreach efforts of the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies. Eli (pronounced ELLIE) attempts to address the issue of keeping Judaism attractive to the younger generations by taking a laid-back, convivial approach to services. The Rabbi describes the new synagogue at 127 S. 22nd Street as being formed of more casual people, who come there to socialize as well as learn. For this younger crowd (which constitutes 70% of its members), he has devised a “user-friendly” service in which he explains the Torah in a down-to-earth manner, and moreover, how to apply those teachings in real life. It’s Torah for the new millennium, for the hip crowd—Judaism made relevant to a group of people who yearn precisely for that kind of energetic and sensible approach. And, at Mekor Habracha, one has the advantage of speaking one on one with the rabbi and other congregates at informal gatherings or “kiddush”—literally the blessing of the wine. For this occasion, Rabbi Hirsch presents his own delicious cholent (a hot vegetarian stew)—a sure hit, the Rabbi assures us with his broad, contagious grin.
Mekor Habracha had a tentative early start (the first rabbi left in 2001) and a number of years of infrequent meetings at the Etz Chaim center. The congregation hired Rabbi Hirsch in March 2006 and since then its small community has grown and its outreach programs have expanded considerably. Eli has an infectious passion when he talks about his work in the new synagogue; it soon becomes clear that that fire comes from the kind of unwavering faith and passion that can inspire crowds and move mountains.
The Rabbi’s talents do not stop at cooking. His role as a spiritual guide is a comprehensive, 24/7 job; to that end, he holds Saturday classes on the teachings of the Torah and an “Executive Study Program,” which offers one-on-one individualized study of Talmudic wisdom that can apply to all aspects of one’s life—including the search for meaningful relationships. Hirsch also holds relationship seminars and is partnered with a matchmaking service because he believes that in the areas of love, commitment, and partnership, the Torah can be of particular help.
For Rabbi Hirsch, Judaism is all about living a just and good life according to the principles of the Torah, and the Rabbi is helping young people navigate those principles with flair, aplomb, humor, and common sense. Ultimately, Rabbi Hirsch is trying to instill in the members of his synagogue the values of Judaism as an organic way of life, rather than as an occasional religious practice. And what’s in store for the (observant) Jewish community for the month of Elul? Perhaps it could be best described in Rabbi’s words: rediscovering what one’s own life is about. Judaism asks, in Rabbi’s opinion, what life is and concludes that it is first and foremost a question of being and identity, rather than one of doing and action. To Rabbi Hirsch’s regret, Americans still favor the question relating to action (what one should do) over the question related to being (who one should be), neglecting perhaps to acknowledge the importance of introspection and self-awareness. “According to the Torah,” says Rabbi Eli Hirsch, “life is about the process of self-actualization that connects a person to the ultimate truth, and helps that person become the human being he or she was meant to be.” He professes that once a person lives in the truth, he or she stops being afraid, and that is the ultimate freedom and our boon for living on earth. For all those observing Elul, but not only, here’s to hoping that they may achieve that kind of clarity. Also: K’tiva V’Hatima Tova!
Want to find more about the meaning of life according to Rabbi Hirsch? Mekor Habracha is located at 127 22nd Street (between Walnut and Sansom); for more information visit www.ccshul.com.