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Center City: Central Address for the Century

September 10, 2009 By:
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Society Hill Synagogue lies in an area frequented by tourists; it's benefited from the Center City boom. Photo by Greg Bezanis

Dozens of voices reverberated in the high-ceilinged room, creating a powerful hum of background noise in the windowless space. About 150 men and women in their 20s and 30s -- many clearly dressed to impress -- were gathered about in clusters, every so often taking sips of the red or white wine in the clear plastic cups they'd picked up at the entrance to the large, echoing room.

The Aug. 25 gathering didn't take place at a Center City bar or some new swanky club, but inside the Gershman Y building. And the stated goal of the evening wasn't for participants to land a date or possibly cajole a phone number, though that may have been on the minds of some.

Instead, the ultimate prize was free High Holiday tickets, and the chance to make connections with about a dozen synagogues and other community groups that had sent representatives to schmooze about their goals and agendas.

The evening marked the third time that the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Collaborative and the Jewish Graduate Students Network sponsored this type of program; such gatherings are now a mainstay on the Jewish young-adult calendar. (The sponsors haven't yet calculated the number of people who've received free tickets and gone on to join a congregation.)

One thing the event clearly illustrated was that there are more davening options downtown now than even just two years ago -- and certainly, more than a decade ago.

Some of the recent additions to the Center City scene include:

· Mekor Ha'bracha: Center City Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation that rents space on 22nd Street, having started officially in 2008;

· Minyan Tikvah, which holds monthly egalitarian Shabbat-morning services near Rittenhouse Square; and

· The Heymish Minyan, another group that holds egalitarian monthly Friday-night services, though it's located closer to the Society Hill district.

The appearance of several startup congregations and minyans -- begun largely by young professionals and graduate students -- is just the latest chapter in a two-decade-long resurgence of Jewish life in Center City.

A Definite Draw

It's a process that has mirrored the transformation of Philadelphia's once lackluster downtown into a hub for the arts and eclectic dining experiences. And that's drawn more people to Center City and led to innovation in all sorts of areas.

"What we are seeing is a resurgence of young Jewish life in Philadelphia. It's social, it's religious, it's cultural," said Rabbi Gedaliah Lowenstein of the Jewish Center of Northern Liberties, a four-year-old Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue.

"Young people are doing Jewish things on a scale that really wasn't there five or 10 years ago," added the 32-year-old rabbi.

There are plenty of ways to examine the growth of Center City's Jewish community. One is simply to look at the numbers. The 1996/97 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia found 17,000 Jews living in the boundaries of Center City -- which has now expanded as far as Poplar Street to the north and Washington Avenue to the south.

Unfortunately, the results of the latest study are not due out until December, according to Federation officials. But here's what is known: From 2000 to 2009, the overall population of an expanded Center City has climbed from 79,000 to 92,000 residents, according to Paul Levy, director of the Center City district. It's fair to assume that the Jewish population has undergone a proportional increase.

"All the indicators have shown 10 years of steady growth in population in the downtown," said Levy, a member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom who directs the nonprofit organization founded in 1990. "The interest in being in downtown is still incredibly strong."

Levy also argued that Center City Philadelphia has held up far better than other similar locales throughout the nation in terms of housing values and unemployment rates. Despite the much publicized spike in murders several years back, Center City is far safer today than in the early 1990s, as statistics on violent crime clearly demonstrate, he added.

Tangible indicators of a burgeoning Jewish life include the completion of an eruv in 2006 and the addition of more kosher dining options, in addition to a kosher bakery.

And even as the independent minyanim have seemingly been sprouting up left and right, the downtown synagogues haven't stopped making plans for the future.

Three recent examples:

· A few months ago, Rodeph Shalom -- which in 2006 closed its suburban campus to focus efforts on its historic Broad Street structure -- purchased the building across the street that had once housed a car dealership. The board will meet next month to decide on how to utilize it;

· Last year, Society Hill Synagogue purchased an adjacent building. Now, it's raising the money to convert it into classroom space and offices; and

· Congregation Mikveh Israel, the city's oldest extant synagogue, is eyeing an expansion once the National Museum of American Jewish History vacates the building the two institutions share and moves into its newly completed home. How Mikveh Israel will utilize that space hasn't been decided yet.

At the same time, the Chevra, a religious and cultural organization that serves young adults and has long been based on the Main Line, is planning later this year to open an office and event space in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. Organizers hope to start a kosher cafe there as well.

But despite, or perhaps as a result of, all the growth and positive developments, some real -- and very different -- questions remain about the future direction of Jewish life downtown:

· Just what kind of long-term effect will the proliferation of small minyans have on the larger community?;

· Center City's growth has been driven by young professionals and empty-nesters; will a large number of parents ultimately decide to raise their kids in the downtown environment?; and

· Will Center City establish more of a Jewish infrastructure, and develop things like a mikveh, greater availability of kosher meats and possibly a day school?

As of now, the leading indicator of a shift in Center City Jewish life has been the growth of several independent minyanim. But far from being a local phenomenon, they have cropped up in major cities across the country, many started by Jews in their 20s and 30s who were looking for a worship experience and community that's far less formal than a standard synagogue.

"People want a place where they can find their peers -- either in terms of age or in life-cycle stage," said Rela Mintz Geffen, a sociologist, college professor and longtime Center City resident who was involved with the original Center City Havurah Minyan, formed in the 1970s.

"There's always a push and pull," added Geffen, referring to why many young professionals are choosing small prayer groups over established synagogues. "Here, the push is that there is some dissatisfaction with the existing options."

Minyan Fever

A groundbreaking 2007 study on independent minyanim across the country found that the majority of participants were under 40, grew up in the Conservative movement, were comfortable with Hebrew and had spent time in Israel.

In 2006, Minyan Merkaz started having bimonthly, Friday-night services in a rented room in a church near 22nd and Spruce streets. Soon, the minyan began getting upwards of 65 people to its musical, lay-led services that are entirely in Hebrew, except for a d'var Torah given by a volunteer.

In 2007, Merkaz's steering committee looked into relocating to a larger space and approached the leadership of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel about meeting in the synagogue.

Joshua Weingram -- who sits on the Merkaz steering committee and is also a BZBI member -- said that BZBI's lay leaders expressed a willingness to comply, but the committee and regular Merkaz attendees decided to stay in their space. Attendance at Merkaz has leveled off, and the group has met in the church ever since, adding monthly potluck dinners to their activities.

Does the existence of the minyans draw potential members away from synagogues like BZBI?

"My personal opinion? Having multiple small davening groups just increases the overall participation of Jewish life in the city," said the 30-year-old Weingram. "I 100 percent believe that if they were going to belong to a shul, they still do. We are not taking members away."

Ilana Emmet, a 25-year-old co-founder of Minyan Tikvah, which met for the first time last month, said that by gathering once a month, the group is clearly trying to supplement -- and not replace -- what already exists. "The goal is not to take away from anything that exists now, but to broaden the options," said Emmet.

The trend hasn't gone unnoticed by other shuls.

As part of an effort to "rebrand" itself and appeal to young adults who might be put off by the words "synagogue" or "congregation," the more than 80-year-old Gershman Y Congregation -- which has been lay-led for nearly a decade -- recently changed its name to Minyan Sulam Yaakov at the Gershman Y, which means "Jacob's ladder."

The word "minyan" just might catch the eyes of a 20-something doing a Google search, said Sulam Yaakov president Alan Rothenberg, 51.

Another factor that will play a huge part in shaping the downtown area's future is whether or not it will become a haven for young families. It appears that it's no longer a given that couples will leave Center City and head for the suburbs once they have kids, or when it's time for those children to begin school.

"Just walk around the downtown, and you will see a huge number of strollers," said Levy of the Center City district.

Synagogue preschools at Society Hill, Congregation B'nai Abraham, BZBI and Kesher Israel Congregation are either at capacity or growing steadily. Even more salient, synagogues are reporting increased numbers in their religious schools.

"When I joined 13 years ago, there were very few young families and even young singles," said Staci Schwartz, Society Hill's president, adding that now the preschool and Hebrew schools have 110 combined students.

In addition to having more living space and the possibility of a yard and a garage -- no small prize for those used to circling Center City streets in search of a parking spot -- many Philadelphia suburbs have traditionally enticed families with the reputations of their school systems.

Education becomes a conundrum for parents who want to raise city kids: Do they trust the Philadelphia school system, or do they shell out for private-school education for years? Parents who want to send their children to Jewish day schools have no choice but to send their kid to the suburbs.

"The suburbs were not for us. We were pretty committed to the idea of living in a city," said Sharri Horowitz, a 39-year-old lawyer who, along with her husband Michael, moved from Washington, D.C., eight years ago. The couple belongs to BZBI and has two daughters, ages 4 and 6.

"We really love this city. Not only the convenience, but the access to the cultural institutions and the diversity of people that we meet," said Horowitz.

As for school, she acknowledged that most of the Jewish parents she knows have opted for private schools, but she and her husband specifically purchased a home near the General George A. McAll Elementary School on Seventh Street so their daughters could go there.

Part of the decision to go with public school was economic, but it was also based in part on philosophy.

"The idea of affording private school, now that I'm not working -- it would be a stretch," said Horowitz, a member of BZBI. "We're products of public school. We kept hearing that public schools are bad, but I never spoke to anyone who sent their child to public school."

Horowitz noted that the family doesn't keep strictly kosher, but likes to frequent establishments like Glatt Delight (formerly Maccabeam) or Hamifgash Glatt Kosher Grill.

Yet for families who do keep kosher or fully observe Shabbat, choosing where to live can have extra layers of complication.

Will Center City become a truly viable alternative to places like Lower Merion? A lot depends on the development of a Jewish infrastructure. But will they come if you build it, or do you have to build it for them to come?

Two years ago, Stefanie Makar Weiner and her husband, Avi, both 25, moved to Philadelphia from Manhattan's Upper West Side, which has an abundance of synagogues and kosher-food options.

Makar Weiner, who attends Mekor Ha'bracha/Center City Synagogue with her husband, noted that the fact that the city had an eruv and a growing Modern Orthodox community are big pluses. She admits that Center City is no Upper West Side, but she doesn't want it that way.

"Sometimes, having too many options can be overwhelming; you end up kind of nowhere," she said.

But she does admit that it's a pain to have to leave Center City and go to either Lower Merion or Cherry Hill, N.J., to stock up on kosher meat or visit a mikveh.

Actually, according to Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of Congregation B'nai Abraham on Lombard Street, discussions are in the works to build a mikveh on the synagogue's property. But first they have to raise the funds and get approval from the city.

"We're hoping that a mikveh is going to be a reality in the not- too-distant future," said Goldman.

For Rothenberg of the Minyan Sulam Yaakov -- not to be confused with the Philadelphia attorney of the same name -- there's something he craves above all else.

"If you've got the hots for a really good corned-beef sandwich and it needs to be kosher -- in Center City, it ain't gonna happen," lamented Rothenberg, a technical writer who's lived in Philadelphia for 20 years.

He also wishes Center City still had a Judaica bookstore and shop -- ordering things online just isn't the same, he said. But far more important than what the area doesn't have is what it's already got, asserted Rothenberg.

"The biggest thing it has is Jews to talk to each other, and synagogues that interact with each other and are in a small, concentrated area," he said, adding that Federation's Center City Kehillah, created in the late 1990s, has worked to foster a greater sense of community and has enhanced cooperation among congregations.

"If you want choice, we got choice," he said, referring to worship options that range from a gay and lesbian congregation to a historic Sephardic synagogue. "From my house, I can easily walk to five different shuls. It's really amazing. It's almost like it used to be back in the good old days -- whenever those were."

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