After college, Jews returning to the Philadelphia area are typically set on finding a job and home of their own. But in their 20s and 30s, they might not be as determined or abled to jump back into the Jewish community– too old to go to youth groups, but too young for programming aimed at parents and empty-nesters.
This was the problem confronting Elizabeth Stone in spring 2014. In response, alongside three other members of Maple Glen’s Congregation Beth Or, she helped found Jewish Professionals of Suburban Philadelphia (JPSP). The organization holds social events with Jewish twists across the counties surrounding Philadelphia.
“We wanted to … look back on the experiences we had as kids so we could rebuild, for lack of a better term, the forgotten segment of the population,” said Stone, 28.
In the past three years among this “forgotten segment,” the approximately 130 attendees of JPSP events have been busy. One week, a local clergy member or lay leader might lead Drinks & Discussion, an event series focused on Torah study and on current events. Another week, members might be hanging out watching the Eagles game. JPSP’s board shifts the locations of their events around Montgomery, Chester, Bucks and Delaware Counties.
“We figured we could start something out in the suburbs so people wouldn’t have to spend their day working and then figure out how to get into town on time,” Stone said.
The group tries to be accessible to young people of all observance levels. Stone noted that if they have dinner at someone’s home, meat or milk dishes will be provided. For prayer events, people will share their versions of the prayer and help lead.
Stone explained that many of their members join JPSP for two purposes: to “re-invigorate” their Jewish identity and to make friends. The organizations generates participation from both longtime residents and those who just moved in – even a few from New Jersey and from Philadelphia itself. Most members have careers already and are “looking to expand their personal networks more so than their professional,” Stone said.
Robert Gelb can attest to that. A year and a half ago, the 23-year-old Huntingdon Valley resident had recently graduated from Penn State — and its Hillel. He was looking for the Jewish connection he had enjoyed at Congregation Beth Or as a teenager. When Elizabeth Stone told him about JPSP, he was excited about the prospect of schmoozing again.
“I was looking for that Jewish community in which the next oldest member wasn’t 40 years older,” said Gelb, who is Reform.
After his first JPSP event at Dave & Buster’s, Gelb was hooked. He enjoyed meeting people from different Jewish backgrounds and hearing about their Jewish experiences and traditions. A favorite event of his was an outdoor Shabbat service, which he described as “very informal, but it felt very intimate at the same time.”
Mark Halin is on the older side of JPSP’s membership. In his late 30s, Halin joined last year, and since then has found both community and Jewish meaning within JPSP. Searching on Meetup.com, the Bucks County resident entered “Jewish” and “professional groups” and found JPSP and Tribe12, a Philadelphia organization.
“It was consistent with the group that I’d been looking for, and it’s been a great relationship experience,” Halin said about JPSP.
Halin’s first dip into JPSP was a Drinks & Discussion event and has since been to about 20 JPSP activities. Halin said that JPSP and Tribe12, a Philadelphia-based organization for 20s and 30s Jews, successfully mix religious and cultural Jewish aspects with “the social activities that young people would want to participate in.”
“Both of them have given me the opportunity to meet a lot of friends within the Jewish community that perhaps I would not be able to meet without these organizations,” he reflected. “It’s also helped me become more spiritually connected to the Jewish faith, the Jewish community.”
Elizabeth Stone helped create JPSP for people like Gelb and Halin, and in the time since, more and more synagogues have been taking notice.
The founders’ home temple, Beth Or, is a frequent host of the group’s monthly Kabbalat Shabbat services, and JPSP notifies members of Beth Or of events they can attend. However, JPSP is a distinct, unaffiliated group that works with congregations around suburban Philadelphia in a variety of ways. Stone affirmed that Drinks & Discussion wouldn’t be possible without local clergy, and Kabbalat Shabbat, referred to as Kab Shab on their Facebook, would be more difficult without the walls of a synagogue
According to Stone, synagogues have been reaching out to JPSP’s activity, since 20s and 30s suburban Jews are an untapped resource for programming events. Some JPSP members are in congregations, but for “many, many more” JPSP is the only Jewish group they do, she said. So while executive directors and rabbis might be happy to make the link, JPSP members benefit too by getting a chance to see new Jewish communities they could someday join.
“We run on a platform of mutual respect and also of fun,” Stone concluded.