Weaving Community in Philadelphia
This week’s post is by Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, managers of manages two community networks, the Center City Kehillah and the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.
A community is like a puzzle. Each piece has to have its place among all the others for the project to work. An individual piece on its own is not especially impressive, it’s not representative of the whole, and it doesn’t serve its greatest purpose. But together? Together, all the pieces can make a beautiful and multi-faceted picture. In my work managing two large Jewish community networks – both of which are made up of many individual parts – I am constantly looking for the gaps to fill, the opportunities to connect, and the purpose of the bigger picture. In my work, the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.
In the first chapter of his book, Jewish Megatrends, Rabbi Sid Schwarz describes four propositions — four pieces of the larger American Jewish community puzzle, all of which reflect pieces that also come together in my Jewish community in Philadelphia. Any one of these trends alone would not be sufficient for the Philadelphia Jewish community to thrive. Taken together, though, these trends are creating constantly evolving and improving opportunities for Jewish life across neighborhoods, demographics, and denominations.
The Center City Kehillah, a network of 30 institutions representing the diversity of Jewish life in urban Philadelphia, is an incredibly special coalition of organizations that all want to work together to enhance and support Jewish life in our city. Rabbi Sid’s Proposition 3: Community/Kehilla speaks to so much of what our Kehilla here in Philadelphia is about. Though he cites many statistics about declining support for Jewish Federations, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia responded to that reality by investing directly in the neighborhoods where Jews are defining their own Jewish experiences. By empowering Jewish leaders in well-defined geographic areas, the Center City Kehillah experience feels specific, immediate, and personal.
The other community network I manage, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, seeks to create a kehilla experience among rabbis, broadening their colleague base and supporting them personally and professionally. When the leaders of a community are supported and nurtured, the rest of the community benefits greatly because the leaders have a greater capacity to keep leading. Further, when the rabbis and cantors, the synagogues, the educational institutions, the board members, and the volunteers all show up for and champion each other’s programs and projects and beliefs, we are modeling for everyone else what kehilla looks like. By rabbis and lay leaders of different denominations working together, everyone else sees that the divisions aren’t really so deep, and the overlap is a lot more compelling.
In my work, the other propositions – Wisdom/Chochma, Social Justice/Tzedek, and Lives of Sacred Purpose/Kedusha – are all pieces that connect to the greater goal of Kehilla. If an organization is focused on advocacy and volunteering, I want them around the table at the Center City Kehillah to share that passion and path with other organizations that may be looking for ways to encourage their members to be more involved in civic issues. While many synagogues focus on creating meaningful prayer spaces, by putting synagogues side by side with young adult organizations focused on social events, the leaders can learn from each other about generational shifts, talk about creative venues for events, and partner on opportunities more focused on the local Jewish experience than on any particular holiday or observance. The ways in which the pieces fit together isn’t always obvious, but it is always enriching.
By creating spaces where these diverse organizations and Jewish leaders work together, I am increasing the likelihood that Jews of different observance levels will learn from and with each other, such as at the Center City Kehillah’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot celebration. By enhancing organizations’ communication channels, I increase the number of people finding out about the ways to support a new refugee family or donate books to a local afterschool program. Through social media and personal relationships, I can amplify more and different and diverse points of entry for Jews in Philadelphia to find meaning and purpose within a few blocks of home. In between each of these propositions and projects and programs, I am enabling Jewish leaders and institutions to reach people who may have otherwise given up on finding Jewish experiences that are the right fit for them.
My work also allows me to put into serious practice the Jewish value of hospitality to guests, hachnasat orchim. Though this may seem like an obvious aspect of any job that involves planning programs or working with people, lifting up hospitality as a community priority can motivate Jewish institutions to fill a specific need for warmth and inclusion in people’s lives. Whenever someone attends an event that I am planning, I want that person to feel appreciated, included, and valued for being there. I want the food to taste good and the room to be the right temperature because those things make people feel taken care of and it communicates a message of respect to the individual, beyond the topic of the program. For people who are new to Philadelphia or newly searching for community, I answer questions on everything from housing to daycare to public transportation to High Holiday tickets. I introduce people to job leads, realtors, mohels, and friends.
I want anyone who approaches a Jewish institution in Philadelphia to feel the love instantly and to know there are leaders invested in helping them to navigate a strange place and make it feel like home. In that communal puzzle that dictates all of my coalition-building, any one organization can be the missing piece to someone who is new to town, and any one individual can be the missing piece to an institution. In the interconnected and fluid ways that people in Jewish Philadelphia get to experience community, I am always on the lookout for a new piece to enhance the whole.
Miriam Steinberg-Egeth manages two community networks, the Center City Kehillah and the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, while also freelancing as a consultant, postpartum doula, and advice columnist. She is passionate about creating a cohesive and supportive Jewish landscape in Center City Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband and their two children.