Rabbi Sandy Roth, the founding religious leader of Kehilat HaNahar, the Little Shul by the River, in New Hope, Pa., died at age 58 on March 8 after a long battle with cancer.
Roth founded the synagogue while still a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1994.
“We, as individuals and a collective Jewish community, have sustained a great loss,” said synagogue administrator Sheila Steinberg. “We are all very blessed to have known Rabbi Sandy and privileged to have been led by her. What we have all learned from Rabbi Sandy will remain with us forever.” The synagogue has renamed its sanctuary in her honor.
Roth was to become rabbi emerita later this month for her “far-reaching impact and unbridled devotion and dedication to her synagogue.”
In a phone interview with NJJN — conducted just weeks before her death and over several days because of her waning health — the rabbi spoke of the comfort she received from her congregants as her health declined.
That support was offered from the moment Roth was diagnosed in 2008 with “a very bad, fast cancer” and given three to six months to live.
“They provided such love and support, shopping and providing meals and loving cards and e-mails and gifts,” Roth told NJJN. She said she was grateful to still be alive to appreciate their concern.
Roth said she was proud to have created an inclusive community where interfaith, interracial, and gay and lesbian families felt welcome. Under Roth’s guidance, non-Jewish parents were allowed a role during a child’s bar or bat mitzva.
She said promoting such inclusiveness was part of Kehilat HaNahar’s “mission.”
The importance of reaching out to others guided Roth’s work as president of the Delaware Valley Interfaith Council. Several months earlier, the group declined to accept her offer to resign her presidency because of her declining health.
“I got back the most beautiful letter that it was important to keep me on their letterhead because I’ve contributed so much as president,” said Roth. “Other people stepped forward to carry out my responsibilities so they could keep me as president.”
Roth’s was a circuitous journey to both Reconstructionism and the rabbinate. She grew up in Paramus and Rockaway, where her family belonged to the Conservative White Meadow Temple. She graduated from Montclair State College and earned a master’s degree in library and information science from Rutgers University and later conducted computer searches for various companies. Roth also studied goldsmithing and entered the jewelry business. Later she also worked as a midwife assistant.
Although she remained observant and “walked miles and miles” to attend Shabbat services, Roth said, she was upset that her local synagogue refused to count women as part of the minyan.
Roth would eventually enroll in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., from which she also earned a master’s in Hebrew letters, graduating in 1999.
“It has been important to me to make life more meaningful in a contemporary Jewish way not only for the people of Kehilat HaNahar, but for Jews in general,” said Roth. “I feel fortunate that I have been surrounded by members who have helped me uncover that meaning and bring it into their lives.”
Shelley Friedman, a synagogue member since 1995, referred to Roth as its “Pied Piper.”
“She had this dream of a synagogue and began studying and got people to join forces and follow her lead,” said Friedman, a commonwealth court judge. “As she grew, so did the synagogue. We followed her lead always, sort of marching to the beat of a different drummer. We had members who hadn’t been in synagogue in years and years, because they married out of the faith and their families sat shiva for them.
“We have no age barriers, no sexual orientation barriers, no racial barriers,” said Friedman. “We are like a diaspora she created. Our shul school is phenomenal. I’ve been involved in Jewish education many years and I’ve never seen kids so happy to be in Hebrew school.”
Roth was one of five women honored last year in the Capitol in Harrisburg by then Gov. Ed Rendell for their contributions to Pennsylvania’s communities.
Funeral arrangements were made by Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks, Inc., in Southampton, Pa., on March 10. A children’s memorial service was held during religious school March 13 and a community memorial minyan was held at the synagogue March 14.
She is survived by her mother, Frances Roth, daughters Rhea (Yao) Nunoo and Mahra Parian, and a brother, David Roth.
Contributions may be made to the Delaware Valley Interfaith Council, c/o Kehilat HaNahar, PO Box 417, New Hope, Pa. 18938, attn.: Marjorie Kaplan.