As the sun began to fade on Saturday, straggling beachgoers made their way back to a house just steps from the sand to join other Jews in their 20s and 30s absorbed in board games and books.
By nightfall, more than 20 people coalesced on the porch — one wrapped in a beach towel, others dressed up for an evening out — to celebrate Havdalah.
For the Collaborative, a social networking group for Philadelphia-area young professionals, this was the last big hurrah of the summer, the fourth and final Shabbat weekend at the shore. By organizers’ count, 74 people participated in cultural and social programming at the oceanside rental throughout the season.
Various Jewish groups have hosted summer excursions and weekend getaways for decades. The idea of creating an annual communal gathering spot at the shore, however, has evolved more recently.
It started informally with Adam Brenner, a software salesman and longtime volunteer in the local young adult community who made a habit of organizing small groups of Jewish friends and families to divvy up vacation time at a summer house.
In August 2009, Birthright NEXT, a nonprofit designed to continue engaging the young adults who took advantage of the agency’s free trips to Israel after they’d returned home, piloted an official shore house program complete with a staff of paid fellows and volunteers. Alum ages 21 and up paid only $50 for the weekend; the rest was subsidized under the Philadelphia office’s $300,000 annual budget.
Encouraged by the popularity of an initial month of Shabbat gatherings at the shore, the organization rented a house for the entire summer in 2010.
When the local office of NEXT abruptly closed that October, former part-time staff member Danielle Selber took it upon herself to keep the program going, last year independently and this year as program director of the Collaborative.
She partnered with Brenner, who leased the house, to designate four weekends this summer for the Collaborative, and one for DAVAI!, a leadership development group for Russian young professionals. Guests paid $150 apiece for the weekend, which included accommodations and several meals.
For the first time, Brenner said, the house felt like a true community effort with multiple individuals and groups stepping up to take on the work and even co-sign the lease.
“Every time I get exhausted, I talk to somebody whose life changed and it inspires me to continue doing what I’m doing,” said Brenner, adding that he sees many shore house participants go on to regularly attend and even volunteer at young adult programs in Philadelphia.
Altogether, Brenner estimated that about 200 different people took up residence at the house throughout the summer.
“You can shove a lot of Jews in six bedrooms,” he joked.
Building off the NEXT model, Selber required Collaborative guests to volunteer for one thing when they registered, whether leading a workshop, cleaning up after a meal or cooking Shabbat dinner.
“It gave people ownership of the experience; they felt they were contributing in a real way to the house,” Selber explained.
Participants had their pick of activities from a schedule Selber taped on the wall. “Everything optional, everything encouraged,” it read. In addition to beach time, fitness and sports, each weekend included Shabbat services and at least one Jewish-themed discussion. (For full disclosure, this reporter headed to the house to lead one such brunch presentation.)
For 22-year-old Kimberly Kaufman, the getaway was a welcome opportunity to reflect on how Judaism plays into her life in a more laid-back setting. The guides on a recent Birthright trip didn’t even lead talks like that, Kaufman said, and so far the other events she’s done with the Collaborative have taken place at bars.
“I just like getting together with people and hanging out. I wasn’t really getting that from my friends and my everyday life,” said Kaufman, a recent graduate of Muhlenberg College now living in Haverford.
Center City newcomer Scott Levy, 32, said he signed up for an earlier weekend in August in hopes of meeting Jewish friends, something he didn’t have time to do during his first year of residency in endodontics at Albert Einstein Medical Center.
It had the potential to be awkward, Levy said, but it ended up feeling “like an adult-ish summer camp” — a refreshing contrast from a past beach vacation with friends that “was all about beer pong and drinking till you fall on your face.”
There was partying here, too, Levy acknowledged, but also far more substance, from an interesting discussion about eco-kashrut to a Havdalah service, something he’d never experienced before. Most importantly, he said, he met several people whom he hopes to continue hanging out with.
“It’s pretty rare when you’re an adult to have these situations,” Levy said. “When do you go away with 25 people that you don’t even know?”