On any given Friday morning, Kvn Shapiro heads over to the Old City Jewish Arts Center (JAC) in downtown Philadelphia, unlocks the doors to receive the day’s art lovers and potential buyers, and then prepares Shabbos boxes to be delivered to Jewish families around the neighborhood. Like many city dwellers, Shapiro doesn’t own a car, but doesn’t mind – he is perfectly happy to deliver the 16 or so packages on his list to each of their designated families by foot.
“I was very disillusioned after being active at a [local Reform synagogue] for four years,” Shapiro told The Jewish Press. “I couldn’t stand it. It was as Jewish as ham.” Four years ago, Shapiro decided to embrace his Jewish identity, and during that time he tried to fit into a Conservative synagogue as well. Ultimately, Shapiro found his place in a world that at first glance seemed an unlikely fit for a free-spirited textile designer with a colorful personality who had worked with some of the biggest names in the clothing industry.
“I actually walked down here on a Friday night because my friend was having an art opening. And all these black hats were standing outside and they said to me, ‘Hi, are you looking for us?’ And I said, ‘No.’”
That’s when Shapiro noticed the sign above the gallery. “I was, like, ‘Wow, I follow you guys on Facebook!’” The men in black hats encouraged Shapiro to come in, but instead, he promised to return at 9 p.m., after his friend’s art show and when the JAC would be serving Shabbos dinner. Being naturally shy, he searched out the crowded room for the men who had invited him. “I sat down with them, and I was fed a full-course Shabbos meal. And the rabbi – I didn’t realize who he was at first because he was so young – chatted my ear off all night. I just thought, ‘These people are super friendly.’”
Come For The Art, Stay For The Rest
It took a moment for Shapiro to realize he’d stepped into the world of Orthodox Jewry, or that the art gallery was the inspiration of a group called Chabad. “The funny thing is,” Shapiro recalled, “a friend of mine suggested that I would like Chabad, but I was too embarrassed to tell her I didn’t know what Chabad was. So this turned out to be my introduction into the Orthodox world of Yiddishkeit.”
Shapiro’s story is not unique – in fact, it’s the norm for the young, Orthodox community that has sprouted up in just a few years in downtown Philadelphia. Called Center City, it is routinely ranked by travel magazines as one of the trendiest and most livable downtowns in America. Philadelphia was, in fact, America’s first big city, and eventually became the birthplace of the nation, signed into existence by 56 men inside Independence Hall, not far from JAC in the historic part of Center City known as “Old City.” Today, Old City is home to fashion boutiques, coffee shops, the National Museum of American Jewish History, historical landmarks like the Liberty Bell, and of course, art galleries.
“Old City is like the Philly version of SoHo in New York,” Rabbi Zalman Wircberg, director of JAC, told The Jewish Press. Just like in SoHo, on the first Friday of every month, known as First Fridays, all the local art galleries open their doors to the public for a few hours in unified fashion. The long-time attraction draws thousands of art lovers to Old City’s cobblestone streets once a month. “The thought was, how can we connect with Jews on a typical Friday not necessarily running to shul – or maybe even running away from shul – and create a Shabbos experience that will touch their soul?”
Wircberg said JAC adopted the slogan “Come for the art, and stay for the rest.” On its trial opening night, the gallery’s founding rabbi stood by the door and counted how many people came in to view the art, and once he’d counted 1,000 heads he decided that JAC was here to stay. “Not all the art is for sale,” said Wircberg. “But you can view the gallery and hear the artists talk about their creations and their inspiration. Then, the rabbi will get up and give out wine to everyone who’s there and he’ll make kiddush. And all of a sudden people don’t know what hit them – they’re in an art gallery and they heard kiddush on a Friday night. And then the crowd leaves, and a new crowd comes in every 25-30 minutes, and we have another kiddush waiting for them.”
While JAC opens its doors and Shabbos table to anyone who walks in, Jewish or non-Jewish (Wircberg pointed out the all-welcome, open-door policy provides an invaluable service in shaping outsiders’ perceptions of Jews and combating anti-Semitism), ultimately JAC’s passion is for the disconnected Jew. “A lot of the people who come here – especially the artists and [from] the art world – are such spiritual seekers. There are so many souls out there screaming for spirituality to fill their void, and they just aren’t sure, physically, how to get it.”
Sandwiched between four prominent universities with heavy Jewish enrollment – the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University to its west, Temple University to its north, and Jefferson University and the University of the Arts at its core – the neighborhood was somewhat destined to be a place where young Jewish professionals, ranging from unaffiliated to religious but with progressive attitudes, would settle, if only the right visionaries would come along and make it both sustainable and attractive enough for them to want to stay. To the credit of Chabad – and Divine Providence – such visionaries did come, and even worked together to build what is today a thriving community.
A Modern Shul For Young Professionals
“I moved to Center City with my wife Miriam in 2006 for an organization called Etz Chaim, a kiruv group,” Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch told The Jewish Press. When asked why he decided to take on Center City in the first place, Hirsch said, “My rosh yeshiva, HaRav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, of Ner Yisrael, encouraged us to dedicate our lives to serving [all levels of] the Jewish community.” Hirsch said when he arrived in Center City they began teaching classes on relationship building, and up to 100 young people would show up regularly. On Shabbos, Hirsch would lead a small group that would meet if ten people would commit to ensuring a minyan. That minyan grew to 50 people, then 100, and moved several times to bigger spaces. Today, the Modern Orthodox shul, named Mekor Habracha, has over 150 member units. “Our congregation spans all age groups, but graduate students, young professionals, and young families comprise over half our membership community,” Hirsch said, “and I’m proud to say that we have played a vital role in advancing Jewish life in Center City.”
When Chesky Kopel’s wife, Talya, was accepted to medical school at Jefferson University, they decided to move to Philly. “My wife and I are originally from New York and were living in Washington Heights,” Kopel, a lawyer, 31, told The Jewish Press. He said they considered living in one of the larger, more traditional Orthodox communities, such as Rhawnhurst on the northeast side of Philly or Lower Merion in the suburbs, but decided they wanted to find a more urban community. “So, we did some research and spoke to some people who lived in Center City.” After visiting, Kopel said, “we were surprised with how friendly the community was, and we were amazed how often we were getting invited to Shabbos meals – perhaps even more than in New York.” Today the Kopels have a three-year-old daughter named Lev, and are considering buying their first home in the community.
A New Community With Historic Ties
Center City and its neighboring South Philly were once home to over 150 row house shuls (a row house is Philly’s version of an urban townhouse) by the 1930s. In these small, ornate neighborhood shuls, the rabbi usually lived upstairs, while services were held on the main floor. Now only a couple row house shuls remain. One is called The Little Shul. “The Little Shul is literally like stepping back in time,” said Shapiro, who now serves as its director of community engagement. “We’re getting a lot of young couples. During Covid we had to close completely because the shul was too small for social distancing. We just recently started having services again in July.”
“We’re famous for our Shabbos lunch,” he added.
The other row house shul, a Chabad shul ironically named Vilna Shul, is completing its transformation into Center City’s first and only mikveh. “Vilna has always been an interesting shul,” said Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, who serves as president of Chabad on Campus International. Rabbi Schmidt is also a musician, and plays lead guitar at JAC and around Philly with his rock group The Baal Shem Tov Band. “When we first came to downtown more than 30 years ago, a lot of Jews were moving out of the city. But Vilna was always very open. People would go to different shuls – even non-Orthodox shuls – and after they would come to us for kiddush and a farbrengen.”
“But the fact is,” Schmidt continued, “there is no mikveh in Center City and this is a very big problem.” Thus came the decision to give up his congregation’s home to remedy the problem. “It wasn’t easy to do this,” Schmidt said, taking a moment to gather his emotions. He gave a resolute chuckle and added, “But that’s the halacha: When there is no mikveh, the Chofetz Chaim says you make the shul into a mikveh.” Schmidt said he expects the mikveh, which has both men’s and women’s accommodations, as well as a place to toivel dishes, to be ready “as soon as G-d finishes sending us the rain.” As for the mikveh’s importance, he said, “I can’t underplay it, not only to attract people to our community, but to strengthen our community’s observance and to give people the opportunity to do this mitzvah which has been a cornerstone of Judaism since forever.”
“We both came from non-religious homes and we met at Oberlin College, a very alternative atmosphere in Ohio,” said Rabbi Doniel Grodnitzky of Mamash! Chabad, speaking about his and his wife, Reuvena Leah’s, journey to Center City. “We started becoming religious together while in college, so after we graduated I went to yeshiva and became a rabbi.” Grodnitzky and his rebbetzin initially planned to return to Oberlin and open a Chabad House, but after those plans fell through, Rabbi Schmidt convinced them there was a need among the students in Center City.
“Starting out, we didn’t know anyone in the city so I was just meeting people on the street. We started with 5-10 people and it grew so much that before Covid we were averaging 60-80 people every Friday night.” On Friday theme nights, he said, that number regularly propelled to 150-180 people, filling up the dining room, basement, backyard, and upper floors of their home.
Today Mamash! draws an eclectic crowd of young Jews in their 20s and 30s ranging from traditional Shomer Shabbos backgrounds to those having their first Shabbos ever. It recently opened its new community center, a three million dollar project that boasts a large dining hall, commercial kitchen, beis midrash, conference space, and a full kosher wine shop – Philly’s first. “It’s interesting to me, because it clearly is a special and unique place,” Grodnitzky said of Center City. “I was just on the phone with a young professional and he said ‘Philly’s still my favorite place I’ve ever lived’ – and he’s lived all over. A lot of people say that.”
Rebounding After Covid
Even before Covid, The Chevra, the venue that is the heart and soul of Jewish nightlife in Center City, faced a major crisis. In 2019, a fire tore through the multi-level social club. “We were really challenged being without our incredible space,” Leon Vinocur, vice president and co-founder of The Chevra, told The Jewish Press. “It had everything from an art gallery, a coffeehouse, and a social event space. But once the pandemic hit, it started a whole other level of challenges.”
Still, Vinocur said it presented a unique opportunity for The Chevra as its leaders worked to stay connected with its members and meet their needs during the pandemic. “What we learned is young people in particular were feeling isolated and alone. Families have kids, but young singles are stuck in an apartment by themselves with just their phones and computers – there was no social interaction. A lot of our participants were really looking for ways to still connect, and in a lot of cases they were really hurting.”
“There was really no alternative but to attempt to do what we do virtually,” said Malkiel Nadel, Chevra’s managing director. The goal was to keep everyone connected and having fun in a virtual world, so the Chevra took their music and entertainment and educational events online. “People were having drinks [but now from the comfort of their homes],” he explained.
Nadel calls The Chevra a “large net” concept. Its singles events not only provide a place for young Jews to meet, they also give the caring staff and in-house rabbis a chance to be a part of the process of the participants growing closer to Hashem. Intermixed in the itinerary of live music gatherings are a lineup of Torah-based classes, group trips to Israel, and Shabbatons. “We’ve really taken this strange time to rebuild our foundation,” said Nadel, “so that when things get back to normal, we’ll be even stronger than we were beforehand.”
A Place for Everyone
Historic shul Bnai Abraham has seen the entire span of Jewish life in Center City, from its historic past to its new vibrant present. On a Wednesday in July it held a celebratory gathering to commemorate its return to in-person services. The crowd was filled with Jews, both young and old, and despite Covid, the mood was festive and optimistic. “We have a new appreciation for priorities – what is important in our lives,” Rabbi Yochonon Goldman told the crowd of about 100 attendees. “We don’t take things for granted anymore.”
On hand as the guest speaker for the evening was the popular Jewish rapper Nissim Black, visiting from Israel, who shared about overcoming his own personal challenges in creating his music, starting a family, and being accepted in a community where he is unique. Afterwards, he graciously accepted questions from the audience. When the event was over Black shared his thoughts about the night – thoughts that, incredibly, embodied the spirit of the Center City community in its fullest.
“Absolutely amazing,” he told The Jewish Press. “It’s the way to come back [from Covid] – a loving, warm, diverse and accepting community. I didn’t feel intimidated to be myself.”