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Bar Taps Into Regular Fare, With a Twist

March 10, 2011 By:
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Young professionals and college students still thirsty for learning after Limmud can find all sorts of "Topics on Tap" brewing at a Center City bar.

For 10 weeks this spring, participants cram into the upstairs room at the Raven Lounge for free sessions on subjects ranging the gamut of Jewish life.

The program has evolved since it started 21/2 years ago as a project of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia's Jewish Graduate Student Network -- though the mission to "bridge the gap" for accomplished academics who didn't "know where to turn when they have a question about Judaism" -- remains the same, said director Miriam Steinberg-Egeth.

At first, two choices of topics were held every other week, for a $5 fee, at alternating locations. Keeping track of the logistics got to be confusing, and the idea of having participants recognize the value of the program by investing a few dollars to attend "didn't work for those intimidated by Jewish learning," explained Steinberg-Egeth.

So they dropped the fee, found a steady site and partnered with other Jewish social networks, including the Collaborative and Moishe House, to help solicit volunteer presenters from a range of religious viewpoints. In the summer, a shorter series, "Topics on Turf," are held in Rittenhouse Square.

"No one particular evening would stand on its own as the most amazing program you've ever seen," said Steinberg-Egeth. "It's really when you come to three or four that you see that it's this really amazing forum that we've created that allows people to explore Jewish content in a way they haven't before. It's not kind of relearning Hebrew school, but it's really approaching Judaism from a relevant, contemporary mindset."

Overall, she said, more than 170 people have come to at least one session. At the first program of the semester this February, it was standing-room only for a panel discussion on young innovators in Israel.

Among the crowd was Adam Gitlin, 26, a fourth-year med student at Drexel who's become a regular since finishing his rotation last summer. Growing up at a Reform temple, Gitlin said he made time for Jewish cultural activities, but regretted letting the educational part slip away.

"It would almost be like a sin if I didn't take advantage of it," Gitlin said, considering he only lives a 10-minute walk away.

Jonathan Wetstein, 28, who's working towards a master's degree in community and economic development through a Penn State University online program, began attending more recently, intrigued by the casual setting and the "wildcard aspect" of having presenters from different backgrounds each week. "I'm always learning something new, whether it's a big, profound story or it's a little tidbit," he said.

Usually, added Wetstein, each topic brings a mix of people who spark conversations about things he hadn't thought about before. The presenters often leave them with ways to continue learning on their own, whether it's a reading list or suggestions of places to get involved.

Unlike a purely social happy-hour event, Wetstein said, having a subject to discuss makes it easier to meet people and network.

"You have that focal point; it kind of pulls everyone together," he said. Worst case, he continued, if a program doesn't live up to expectations, "at the very least, you can still have a beer and still see people you know."

For the schedule, see: www.jewishgrads.org/topicsontap.

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