Author: Sacharow, Fredda
Date published: May 15, 2012
Emblazoned in neon on the side of a bridge span ning the Delaware, just upriver from Center City, is the slogan, "Trenton Makes, the World Takes."
Tweaked a bit, the phrase aptly defines the last 125 years in Jewish institutional and organizational life: "Philadelphia Leads, the World Heeds."
Whether through the 1888 launching of the Jewish Publication Society; the 1893 founding of Gratz College, the first Hebrew teachers' college to train women as well as men; or the 1970s burgeoning of the Soviet Jewry movement, which would ultimately help open the gates for thousands of former "Jews of Silence," Philadelphia has served as an incubator for big ideas - and big beginnings.
"There was a moment in American Jewish history when Philadelphia was the most exciting and productive creator of institutions in the United States," says sociologist ReIa Geffen.
Jewish intellectuals and scholars, known collectively as the Philadelphia Group - among them such page-one names as Sabato Moráis, Cyrus Adler and Mayer Sulzberger - helped lay the groundwork for many of the institutions that became the foundations of American Jewish life.
In Jewish Life in Philadelphia, 1830-1940, the late Murray Friedman offers a representational list of organizations with strong roots in the City of Brotherly Love: the Jewish Theological Seminary, the American Jewish Committee (for whose Middle Atlantic States chapter Friedman served as director), JPS, the Jewish Chautauqua Society and the Baron de Hirsch Fund.
Friedman notes that it was Adler who, in 1906, introduced the idea of an authoritative body to speak for American Jews on national and international matters. Sulzberger became the first president of AJC, which, to this day, continues to combat anti-Semitism and promote pluralism and human rights.
The blossoming of Jewish organizational life corresponded with a mass migration of newcomers, mostly from Eastern Europe, who began to flood Philadelphia in the late 1880s. The influx led to what Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel describes as a 20-fold increase in the region's Jewish population over 30 years - an increase that would be nearly unthinkable today.
"Jews were among the largest of the immigrant groups coming into the eastern seaboard," he notes. "It was a huge change, making Philadelphia emerge as one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. Philadelphia probably had more Jews than Warsaw, then the largest Jewish population in Europe."
Numbers of that magnitude demanded serious infrastructure, which became the responsibility of the community over the next several decades. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a frenzy of institution-building, including hospitals, foster homes, lodges, synagogues, settlement houses and social organizations.
In 1901, under the leadership of a small core of German-Jewish laymen, the organization that would ultimately become known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia made its debut - the fourth of its kind in the country after those started in Boston, Chicago and Cincinnati.
Growth was rapid: By 1918, when the umbrella organization had expanded from 14 to 39 constituent agencies, the lay leaders hired the first Federation executive director. That year, too, power began slowly to shift as German Jews gave recognition to leaders of Russian ancestry.
As the needs of world Jewry have changed, so have the Federation's main areas of concentration, from helping to resettle and absorb the survivors of Hitler's reign of terror, to building the State of Israel and assuring that it continues to thrive, to today's focus on helping vulnerable populations and ensuring Jewish continuity.
Ernest M. K$tin
After nearly two decades of trying, Ernest Kahn still hasn't mastered this retirement thing.
"When it comes to retirement, you are the biggest incompetent I know," his friend Rabbi David Teutsch tells him, only half-joking.
It's not for lack of trying, Kahn, 86, says in his office at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, where every Tuesday he carries out the duties of senior executive consultant. It's just that there's still work to be done, and he's not ready to wash his hands of it.
Kahn was 53 in July of 1978 when he first set foot in the Federation building, then at 16th and Locust Streets in Center City. He'd had a rewarding career in academia - assistant dean at the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland - and had run one JCC in Stamford, Conn., and supervised programs at another JCC, this one in Chicago.
Jerome Stem was Federation president when the organization lured Kahn to Philadelphia as director of allocations and planning. Since then, Kahn has served in too many capacities to count, including three stints as interim executive director.
The Federation wrestled with different challenges a quarter of a century ago, Kahn recalls. The Soviet Jewry movement was in its early days, and Israel was still coping with the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war five years earlier.
"Our main concern was procuring Israel's physical security and building the country" to absorb the large number of immigrants coming from Argentina, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and other immigration hotspots, Kahn says. "There was also the concern that we were not raising anywhere near the amount that a large, relatively affluent federation was expected to make."
Why the gap? Kahn says Philadelphia was famously short of the type of international mega-businesses other cities boasted, which affected the annual campaign's bottom line.
Kahn officially "retired" in 1995, only to be pressed into service for a study on Soviet Jewry for the National Council of Jewish Federations, and again as interim president of Gratz College.
His second stab at a life of leisure found him teaching at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College until Federation called again, this time to help the Jewish Community Centers of Philadelphia transition into three independent entities. And in the past few years, there has been the Jewish Population Study to review, and the Priorities Committee of Federation to serve on. His latest project, working with Federation's Policy, Strategy and Funding Committee, means he's got his eye on the future - even as he passes the baton.
The Community Grows
Rabbi Philip Warmflash
In nearly 20 years in Philadelphia, Rabbi Philip Warmflash has seen Jewish organizations spring up and flourish, only to fade away. Or merge. Or be reborn with a new name, and a new purpose.
The longtime communal worker doesn't lament the changes. He welcomes them.
"I'm starting to hear more people say we have great things here, now we can have better things," says Warmflash, 58, executive director of the Jewish Learning Venture - itself a poster child for the adapt-or-die mentality.
Jewish Learning Venture represents a merger of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, founded 25 years ago to strengthen and bring professionalism to congregational educational programs, and the Jewish Outreach Partnership, which traces its beginnings to the Hebrew Sunday School Society (later known as Community Hebrew Schools), and which sought to engage Jews in Jewish life and learning, and promote dynamic congregational life.
Warmflash, JOP's founding executive director, says the new incarnation is about "Jewish learning, from formal to informal - all aspects of Jewish learning, with a real focus on families."
Throughout his career, he has helped develop such programs as Synaplex Philadelphia, which sought to design the synagogue of the 21st century, and Making Connections Home Study Kits. He has served as a consultant for the Consortium for the Jewish Family, and was principal of the Community Hebrew Schools here.
Consistently high rates of intermarriage present an ongoing challenge to educators and communal workers, he says; with an estimated 45 percent of Jews under 40 married to non-Jews, the Jewish world must change its approach in order to survive.
"We have a growing number of nonJewish parents, generally mothers, in our Jewish preschools who are raising Jewish children, resulting in the need to reach out and help them understand what their child is learning Jewishly."
Congregational schools also must modify their language to include all Jewish families, many of which have multiple religious traditions: "Children and families will only be engaged when they can find themselves in the language of our congregations and institutions," he says.
The Jewish world of tomorrow will include fewer organizations; those that do survive will be multipurposed and forward-looking, Warmflash predicts.
"The challenge will be that technology will make it so much easier - easier than it is now - to be in your own space, and we will have to find new reasons for people to come together. Coming together will take on a different texture, a different meaning."
The Next Generations
OUR READERS REMEMBER
This is my story about how the Jewish Exponent touched my life.
I grew up as an only child with my grandparents and my mother, who was divorced from my father. I never knew my father and often wondered about him.
About eight or nine years ago, there was a Letter to the Editor in the Jewish Exponent asking for information about Anita Rubin, who graduated from Overbrook High School in 1945, signed by Bara Fern, Dallas, Texas. It was my half-sister - and she was looking for me!
It was quite a shock!
My father had remarried and had three children: Bara, Sabrina and Mark. He never told his children he had another daughter.
When he died, Bara found divorce papers listing my mother and myself. Bara took a genealogy course to learn how to contact me.
She called every high school in Philadelphia and found out I had graduated from OverhrooJc High Schooi. Then, she decided to send a letter to the Jewish Exponent.
My husband and I met Bara and her husband, Paul, and Sabrina and her husband, Joe, a few months after the discovery. It was a joyous get-together.
Now, at the age of 84, I have found a new family who has added so much to my life, thanks to the Jewish Exponent.
Anita Teitell, Jenkintown, Pa.
Growing up in a small upstate New York town an hour from Buffalo, N.Y., Miriam Steinberg-Egeth keenly felt the isa lation of being a Jew in a non-Jewish world. She yearned to be part of a community.
Now, the 31-year-old spends her professional life creating that community for the next generation.
As director of the Graduate Student Network of HiIIeI of Greater Philadelphia, Steinberg-Egeth relies on an arsenal of tools both old and new, from Shabbat dinners to social media, to spread the message of Judaism's rich tradition to 22 campuses in and around the city.
"It's an amazing thing to have a job that's incredibly rewarding and incredibly fun," says Steinberg-Egeth, who, on any given day, is likely to be engaging students one-on-one over a cup of coffee or hosting a Topics on Tap discussion at Raven Lounge in Center City (recent topic: "The Myth of the Jewish Woman").
She believes the future of the Jewish community she's helping build rests on the ability of disparate factions and streams to unite under one roof.
"More and more, the Jewish community is going to be sustained through organizations like ours, that bring people together," Steinberg-Egeth says, citing an alternative minyan she helped found as one example of fostering dynamic environments. An independent, egalitarian group of davenners, Minyan Tikvah rents space at the Ethical Society in Rittenhouse Square, opening its doors to worshipers of all ages.
You'll hear the word "pluralism" early and often in a conversation with Steinberg-Egeth. It's both mantra and management strategy.
Her graduate network partners with other area organizations such as the Collaborative, Tribe 12, the Federation's Renaissance Group and the Lubavitch House at Penn. The collective aim is to bring together young adult Jews for social events, volunteer activities and religious programs.
"Our goal is to have students put down Jewish roots here," Steinberg-Egeth says. "My hope is that when people outgrow the 'happy hour' scene, they'll get involved with organizations that address substantive needs, such as working with the hungry and the homeless."
The activist recently added two more status updates to her own life: She became the mother of Aliza Rachel, and she launched a blog. "Miriam's Advice Well," named for the legendary source of water that followed the biblical matriarch in the desert, is sponsored by the Jewish Exponent.
1703: Jonas Aaron becomes the first Jewish Philadelphia on record.
1745: Mikveh Israel becomes the first Jewish synagogue in Philadelphia; it is still in existence.
1814: The first Hebrew Bible to appear in the United States is published in Philadelphia by Thomas Dobson.
1830: Philadelphia's Jewish community becomes the country's second largest, with roughly 750 people.
1861: Chevra Bikur Cholim (a synagogue), the first voluntary Jewish immigrant association in Philadelphia, is founded.