At 20th and Market, go down the road a little bit, and you’ll find an unassuming brown office building called The Chevra. But unlike the nearby bank and coffee shop, The Chevra’s purpose can’t be defined in one word.
In fact, their website does it in about 24: “multimedia venue & social network feat. a lounge, bar, stage, gallery & loft providing social, educational, spiritual, & volunteer experiences for Young Jewish Professionals & Grad Students.”
Leon Vinokur, Jon Erlbaum and Aryeh Shalom came up with the idea for The Chevra in 2002. According to Vinokur, their goal was to unite a variety of programming for young Jewish adults within one building. “We wanted to do something that was substantive and sophisticated and fun, social, and that had a really big lev, had a really big heart,” said Vinokur, who is The Chevra’s chief operating officer.
It would take years of borrowing space from a nearby synagogue, Mekor Habracha, to finally open up their own building in late 2015. With the considerable size of Philadelphia’s Jewish population and the Center City location, Vinokur said their new building would “reach a broader audience of young Jews that before didn’t really have an option like this, a facility like this.”
During their pre-building days, they organized events ranging from retreats in the Poconos to speed dating. According to Vinokur, The Chevra was the meeting spot for 70 now-married couples. “People come to a lecture, they come to a cocktail party, they come to a gallery opening, and it’s a great environment to meet people,” Vinokur said. Shalom agreed, saying The Chevra provided the equivalent of “a Hillel house,” as a much-needed community for young professionals.
Its first two floors have a lounge, bar, art gallery, and large room you could call multipurpose. But in reality, every space in The Chevra is multipurpose, alternately holding Torah classes, lectures or gigantic holiday bashes.
Most recently, on Aug. 6, they held a Caribbean-themed party for Tu B’Av, the holiday that celebrates love, featuring the music of an Israeli band called Shtar. Their other major holiday parties fall around Hanukkah, Purim, Lag B’Omer and Sukkot.
For now, the building is co-sponsoring an art exhibit with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The exhibit’s name, “Art of the Negev,” comes from the origins of the two featured artists, Yaffa Dadon and Simcha Even-Haim. They live in and near Netivot, Israel, a partner city for the Federation.
Shalom was a key figure in the arrival of “Art of the Negev.” As the chief creative officer, in addition to a long list of other responsibilities, he worked with the curator, Jocelyn Firth, and their liaison at the Federation, Raoul Molnar, to get the paintings to Philadelphia.
Shalom believes in promoting Jewish artists year-round, citing the live bands that play at their holiday parties and the importance of the stage and gallery in The Chevra.
“Art of the Negev” is only the second exhibit to inhabit The Chevra’s walls. “Hipsters and Hassids” opened in November 2016. While last year’s exhibit artist, Elke Reva Sudin, an Orthodox woman from Brooklyn, attended the opening party, the same could not be said for this year. Due to budget concerns, Dadon and Even-Haim were unable to visit for “Art of the Negev”’s opening on June 28.
However, The Chevra members were able to meet the artists on their annual July trip to Israel. Program Coordinator Asya Zlatina said that the “Art of the Negev” exhibit was an important opportunity for Dadon and Even-Haim to showcase their work, and that when the Philadelphia group met the artists, there was much crying and hugging.
“They really have no opportunity there, the way that they have here, to sell. Because it’s not like Tsvat… that’s the hot spot for art. Tel Aviv, also. Jerusalem, that’s a big — but for them it’s really impossible,” Zlatina said.
The exhibit will run until Sept. 20, and visitors can purchase pieces if they wish. Shalom said they are still figuring out what the next exhibit will be, but he hopes to someday secure the talents of Dan Groover, an Israeli graffiti artist.
In the future, Vinokur said they plan to renovate multiple spaces around the Chevra to make it an even better hangout for local young Jews, including expanding the kitchen for Shabbat dinners and transforming the parking lot into a patio. They also hope to restart Krav Maga classes as well as other programing.
With the ever-changing population that comes through The Chevra’s doors, the leaders have much to look forward to in the coming years.