"L'chaim!" they said.
Jersey shore? Forget it. Welcome to — as one participant called it — "the Jewsey shore."
As late afternoon turned into evening, the group of five grew to about 20; a similar number had gathered for Shabbat dinner earlier in the weekend. Overseeing the grill was Adam Oded, director of the Philadelphia chapter of Birthright Israel NEXT, and he couldn't help but look content.
"Not bad for a first weekend," he said, shuffling chicken wings, hot dogs, burgers, eggplant, tofu and more around the grill.
Meaning Out of Experiences
The house, in Ventnor, N.J., is less than a block from the beach, with seven bedrooms and two wrap-around porches. From now until Labor Day, these digs will be home to members of the Philly NEXT chapter and their friends.
Last summer, Oded set up a shore house as a pilot program; the one-month run in August proved so successful, he said, that as soon as the summer ended, he quickly began investigating renting a place for the entire season in 2010.
NEXT's mission is to maintain young adults' Jewish involvement after they return from Birthright's free 10-day Israel trips. A shore house may not seem the most Jewish of environments, but it represents another way that a new generation is approaching Judaism on its own terms, making meaning out of religious experiences that don't necessarily take place in a synagogue or other traditional institutions.
Still, Oded said that he was aware that "there's a lot of suspicion when it comes to Jewish organizations inviting you somewhere for the weekend," he said. "You get a bait and switch, and soon enough, you're listening to five hours of lectures."
There are no lectures here; rather, there's an emphasis on learning by doing.
"I've never kept kosher, so it's learning on the job. But it's cool," said Rachel Singer, one of three "summer squires" spending the warmer months volunteering in the house, working as Oded's right-hand man (or woman, as the case may be) and generally keeping things running.
Another squire, Lindsay Konell, said that she didn't even know about NEXT until a friend recruited her to help out at the house. The Bucks County high school math teacher was looking for something to keep her busy during the summer break, and she pointed out that many of her friends are jealous of the tony digs she's found herself in for the next few months.
The house sleeps about 15. Oded said it works for singles, but is also "couples-friendly." As is true with all NEXT activities, it's not required to have attended a Birthright trip, though the majority last weekend appeared to be veterans of the free trips. All guests must be 21 or older.
Included in the first group was a quintet of New Yorkers. Jill Jacinto lamented that her local NEXT chapter doesn't have anything like this, and added, "If they let us come back, we'll come back."
Subtle Jewish elements dot the house, such as a combination wet-bar and ritual-washing station, a Shabbat songbook on the coffee table and Israeli alternative music on the stereo. When Sunday night's dinner wound down, some of the guests standing around the kitchen started debating High Holiday etiquette.
NEXT will continue to run programs in the city this summer, but many are being transplanted to the shore. Also on tap is a bit of volunteerism; later, when the house opens to guests for weeks at a time, local community service will be required.
The group is also planning to hold challah-baking workshops, and are planning to invite Israeli Consul General Daniel Kutner down to mingle — and even do a little grilling.
"We have more people interested in staying than we have spots to host people," Oded said, adding that the group has partnered with other young Jewish Philly-based groups like the Collaborative and the Moishe House.
According to Oded, the whole thing is designed to build community through immersing the guests in a nondenominational, nonjudgmental atmosphere.
"I'm doing this because I believe in it," he said. "The connections that you make in a place like this are for life."
For her part, Rachel Singer was planning on setting up another long-running Jewish tradition: matchmaking.
"Hey, Adam," she queried, "if somebody meets here this summer and gets married, can they have their honeymoon here?"