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Hold On to Your Cookies: The Chevra's Coming!

January 29, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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The Swiss Haus is to be turned into a meeting place.

Step inside the Swiss Haus Bakery on 19th Street these days, and you'll be confronted with warm smells and homey aromas. But if things go the way Jon Erlbaum hopes they will, before long, visitors will be met by warm feelings and a sense of community -- along with certain traditional cafe scents.

Erlbaum serves as executive director of the Chevra -- a local group aimed at helping young people in their 20s and 30s forge a connection to Jewish life.

With the help of a few generous philanthropic contributions, the group has secured most of the money required to create its own home in the bakery's location near Rittenhouse Square.

Though the project will cost more than $4 million, Erlbaum said that work can begin after about $3.7 million has been raised -- an amount he feels he's close to reaching.

"We've climbed 80 percent of Everest, but the hardest part is to get to the peak," he said.

"Within two months from now, we want to secure the remaining funds for the green light," he continued, hoping the site opens by spring 2010.

After the new center is constructed, the group hopes that it will serve as a hub -- a place where all sorts of young people can commune and engage with Judaism at whatever level they're comfortable with.

That will be accomplished through a variety of activities -- everything from trips, seminars, religious services, matchmaking programs, kosher dining in the center's cafe, and a strong emphasis on what Erlbaum called "edutainment."

"These are the people at a critical crossroads in terms of their Jewish identity," said Erlbaum.

He hopes that the new center will serve as a "one-stop shop" for the needs of such Jews: "For some people looking for a social scene, we provide that. For some people looking for matches, we provide that. For people looking for something substantive and meaningful, we provide that."

In attempting to strike the right balance of content for its participants, Erlbaum cited the group's motto: "Where social meets substance."

Since its inception, the Chevra has relied on borrowed spaces to host events, including some held in Erlbaum's own home.

"The location will create natural traffic," he said. "It's close to Rittenhouse Square, and that's where our demographic likes to live, work and play, so it's right there in the thick of things."

About half of the initial funding the group has received for its new digs has come from venture capitalist David Magerman, who recently initiated a tuition-incentive program at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.

While those served by the Chevra and those in need of Jewish day schools may be decades apart in actual age, Magerman said that the two are connected in a significant way.

The Chevra "is approaching the situation in the Jewish community from a different perspective than I am," said the philanthropist. "I'm focusing more on day schools, and [Erlbaum's] focused on creating a generation of day-school parents. It's hedging my bets, because if the Chevra is successful in creating affiliated and connected Jews, those people are more likely to send their kids to day schools without any other incentive."

Until those children are ready, however, the Chevra is working to draw its users from the same pool as organizations like Birthright Israel's alumni organization (Birthright Israel Next) and the Collaborative.

But Erlbaum doesn't mind a little friendly competition.

"We're fans of what other groups are already doing," he said. "We want to build on the unity that already exists." 

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