Center City Philadelphia has experienced a population boom. Jewish young adults are well-represented among the influx of men, women and young families who are enjoying the many attractions and amenities of an urban lifestyle.
Ross Berkowitz, director of the Collaborative, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia, knows first-hand that many of these 20 and 30 something Jewish couples and singles crave a Jewish connection. Some are graduate or medical school students, others are young professionals — beginning new careers in a community far from family and friends. All have called Berkowitz over the summer with a common query: "Where can I go to celebrate the High Holidays?"
Berkowitz recalls that in past years, the Collaborative created a resource guide that contained information about area synagogues, Hillels and other community venues that offer free or reduced cost tickets to High Holiday services. "However simply attending services with hundreds of other anonymous Jews does not create the sense of community that these young adults are looking for," he said, adding "To feel truly welcome, they need a people to people connection."
This is the premise behind A Taste of Jewish Life in Center City, a program that enables young adults to sample kosher wines while chatting informally with spiritual leaders and young adult congregants at Philadelphia synagogues. Berkowitz presented this program at a meeting of The Kehillah of Center City, a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia that facilitates cooperative undertakings and builds bridges among the 13 synagogues cultural and community service agencies in the City of Brotherly Love.
Kehillah Coordinator Catherine Fischer said that Berkowitz's proposal "generated an enthusiastic response from all of the rabbis in attendance." Eight Philadelphia congregations, representing all of the major Jewish denominations, have committed to this inaugural event slated for Wednesday, Aug. 29, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad Street. Rabbis, cantors and active young members of Germantown Jewish Centre, Mikveh Israel, Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Kol Tzedek, Society Hill Synagogue, Beth Ahavah and B'nai Abraham will share information about programs and activities at their individual synagogues and will invite all who are interested to attend High Holiday services as their guests.
"This personal approach continues long after the event," said Addie Lewis, director of Jewish Federation's Renaissance Group which enthusiastically signed on as a co-sponsor of the Aug. 29 program. Lewis, who has invited members of this group of Jewish men and women, ages 25 to 45, to participate, explains that congregational volunteers will befriend these prospective members and make them feel welcome.
Rabbi Ira Stone, spiritual leader of Beth Zion-Beth Israel and chairman of the VAAD: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, believes that the Taste of Jewish Philadelphia "provides a safe umbrella under which young people can safely explore the variety of synagogue experiences available to them in Center City." He added that "This is an important value in addition to encouraging younger people to recognize that synagogues want them and want to provide them with services they may want and need."
The synagogue, which is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has an active 20s and 30s group which maintains a full calendar of social and religious events throughout the year. Rabbi Stone emphasized that the congregation offers a variety of cross-generational activities and programs to which young adults are encouraged to participate.
Deborah Gordon Klehr, who married her husband, Zachary, a lifelong member of Reform Congregation Rodeph Shalom, in June, is looking forward to welcoming unaffiliated young adults to her synagogue. "We want them to feel welcome in a congregation that has become a big part of our lives," she said, adding that both she and her husband are both involved in "Rodeph Shalom Young Friends" and will encourage their guests to accompany them to the Rosh Hashanah luncheon, happy hour and other special programs sponsored by this group to help young congregants become connected to one another and to the larger congregational community.
Zachary Klehr, who became a Bar Mitzvah and was confirmed at Rodeph Shalom before moving to New York after college, feels as if he truly "came home" when he rejoined the synagogue after he returned to the Philadelphia area. He believes that joining a congregation is "a great way for Jewish people from across the area to come together to form relationships with each another and with the Jewish community."
Joining the Klehrs at the Rodeph Shalom table will be Associate Rabbi Jill Maderer. She is excited at the prospect of sitting down with young people who are exploring synagogue affiliation, sharing a glass of good kosher wine, and presenting the many programs and services that Rodeph Shalom can offer them. "We realize that, for many Jews, the High Holidays trigger a need to reconnect with the Jewish community and we are happy to offer free High Holiday tickets to those young adults who are looking to find a congregational home," she said. The rabbi added that "she is delighted to join with other synagogues for a program that presents the rich diversity of Jewish life in Philadelphia."
Rabbi Stone hopes that participants in the Aug. 29 event will find spiritual, social and emotional fulfillment in synagogue affiliation. "Contrary to conventional wisdom, I believe community, and therefore Jewish community, is essential at every age and stage of life. Therefore, it goes without saying that the alienation, loneliness, and spiritual drifting that might impact any of us at any age might also impact folks in this particular age group. Synagogue life, at its best, is one important way to address these needs we all have," he concluded.
For more information concerning a Taste of Jewish Philadelphia and/or free High Holiday tickets to Center City synagogues, call Addie Lewis at 215-832-0828, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.