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Creating Modern Orthodox Community
For nearly two weeks, while Andres Catalan’s baby son was in intensive care, members of his synagogue were anxiously waiting for some news.
Rabbi Eli Hirsch, of Mekor Habracha, the Orthodox congregation in Center City, sent an email the afternoon of Sept. 24 saying the boy’s condition had improved to where his parents were taking him home and were ready to welcome him into the community. Within a few hours, more than 40 people had gathered at the shul for the baby’s bris.
“Everyone comes to the rescue — it’s amazing,” said Catalan, who is from Barcelona, is completing his doctorate in operations management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and teaches at Temple University. “This year, I had two work offers — one to move to Paris and one to stay in Philly — and pretty much, the community here is what tipped the balance.”
Since Mekor split in 2008 from the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies, where it had been an informal prayer group of several dozen people, the shul has grown considerably. The congregation now has more than 250 members and is considering relocating from the second floor of a nondescript building at 20th and Chestnut streets to a larger space.
That growth has made it easier for young professionals, like Catalan, 32, who are interested in exploring a more observant lifestyle, to remain near Rittenhouse Square. Other Orthodox options are more of a hike, such as B’nai Abraham or the Vilna Congregation in Society Hill and the Sephardi congregation, Mikveh Israel, near Independence Mall.
Otherwise, the urbanites might feel compelled to leave the convenience and bustle of Center City for a more established Orthodox community like one in Lower Merion.
The momentum at Mekor is also part of a larger resurgence of Jewish life in Center City, where residents have started new prayer groups, such as the traditional lay-led Minyan Tikvah. Meanwhile, established congregations have seen an uptick in membership in recent years. Rodeph Shalom, a historic Reform congregation on North Broad Street, invested $5.5 million to renovate its sanctuary in 2005 and has become a hub of Jewish activity, particularly for young families. And groups such as the Chevra and the Collaborative, which organize social events for young Jewish professionals, have become mainstays of the Center City scene.
At Mekor, members say that a shared interest in building a Jewish community in Center City has motivated them not only to gather for morning services and regular programs at the synagogue — the congregation initially met primarily just on Shabbat — but also to work toward building the institutions that accompany an observant lifestyle in the city.
Catalan, who met his wife, Yah-el Har-el, at Mekor, credits Hirsch with the close ties and growth that have occurred at the shul.
“He is very empathetic, reaching out and understanding what your situation is,” said Catalan, a member of Mekor since 2010.
In many ways, the congregation appears to be a reflection of the rabbi and his wife, a modern urban couple.
Hirsch, 43, works as an options trader for a small hedge fund, a position he described as more of a hobby compared to his primary occupation leading the synagogue. His wife, Miriam Ort, 33, is a senior director of human resources for PepsiCo in New York. They don’t have any children and keep an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in addition to their residence in Philadelphia.
The majority of the congregation is comprised of singles and couples in their 20s and 30s who work in the city and span the spectrum of religious observance.
“One of the things I believe Torah teaches is you can’t judge anybody based on observance level,” said Hirsch, who received his ordination from Yeshiva Ohr Reuven in Wesley Hills, N.Y.
In addition to calling out page numbers during services and directing people when to sit or stand — practices usually associated with more liberal streams of Judaism — Hirsch and others at Mekor also work on the nuts and bolts of building a traditional Jewish community.
For example, there are now a handful more kosher vegetarian options in Center City — Blackbird Vegan Pizza, MiLah Vegetarian and Falafel Bar among them — than there were four years ago — thanks in part to the efforts of Hirsch and Mekor members. Around that time, the International Kosher Council approached Hirsch asking for his help in certifying and supervising restaurants in Philadelphia. Since then, the council’s mashgiach has conducted the initial
inspections for restaurants and then trained-Mekor members have conducted inspections at the restaurants at least once each week.
The congregation also helps maintain the area’s eruv, a device that connects telephone poles and wires to enclose an area, allowing people to carry on Shabbat, which is otherwise forbidden. Mekor members are also involved with plans for a mikvah in Center City.
Hirsch said such infrastructure helps build community, which is ultimately what will make Center City an attractive place for observant Jews.
“People don’t want to move to a desert” where there is no viable Modern Orthodox community, Hirsch said. “The bigger the community gets, the more people feel comfortable living here.”
Jonathan Gradman, a 29-year-old former beer brewer in Brooklyn, said there were about 10 people at Shabbat services when he first came to Mekor with his wife, Lexi Scheiber Gradman, after moving to Philadelphia in 2009 for graduate school at Drexel University. Last month, while standing underneath a full sukkah in an alley near the shul, he said the numbers had grown quickly.
“Coming from a shul in Brooklyn, it was — not somber, but a more austere atmosphere. Here, everyone’s young; everyone wants to have a good time,” Gradman said while holding his infant son, Yuval.
Mekor now draws a large number for its monthly Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinner and hires a chazzan to lead the services. On Saturday mornings, the 125 chairs inside the shul are usually filled, Hirsch said.
The congregation was outbid when it tried to buy a vacant church at 19th and Pine streets earlier this year, but Hirsch said they are continuing to look for a new building.
“We know the way things are going right now, it looks like we’re going to need a new space soon,” said Hirsch.
There has also been talk of starting a co-ed community Jewish day school in Center City, initially with just kindergarten and first grade.
Plans for the school, potluck meals in parks around Center City and “Tot Shabbats” aim to make Mekor a comfortable place for young singles and families, but the shul is not just a place for the under-40 crowd.
Bruce Taubman, the president of Mekor, has been involved with the congregation since it started with Etz Chaim. The 66-year-old pediatrician said the rabbi’s efforts to make sure that everyone attending services feels included is what defines the congregation.
“He is very good with young people and he has an attitude of wanting to have everyone, from whatever background, feel comfortable in our shul. And whatever halachically in Orthodoxy is allowed for women, he wants them to feel as comfortable as possible and that’s the same philosophy that I have,” said Taubman. “He strongly believes that Orthodox Jews can keep their Orthodoxy and be part of the secular world.”
Rhona Gerber, an event planner, joined Mekor with her husband and two children about four years ago after being a longtime member of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Center City. She said she doesn’t think her religious practices have changed from one synagogue to the other.
They kept Shabbat before joining Mekor and she would still prefer an egalitarian service. But she and her husband like the feeling on Friday nights at Mekor and the fact that the congregation welcomes Shabbat according to candlelighting times. Those qualities outweigh other considerations.
“It really has a great aura of Shabbat and that was important to our family,” said Gerber, 48.
She also wanted to support Mekor because of what it meant for the Jewish community in Center City.
“The more shuls you have for people to choose from,” Gerber said. “the more kosher restaurants — and God-willing, some day, a Jewish day school — the more vibrant the community will be and the more people will want to live here.”