When 29-year-old Leora Eisenstadt was a law student in New York City, she often attended Friday-night services at several chavurah groups and minyans that met at different spots throughout Manhattan.
When Eisenstadt, a native of White Plains, N.Y., moved to Center City last year to start a job, she decided that she wanted to find the same sort of experience here in Philadelphia.
Specifically, she wanted to daven with a group of people her own age, in an environment not directly related to a synagogue, and with a service not led by a rabbi or cantor, but instead by lay people.
She also explained that she was looking for a worship experience that placed a decided emphasis on singing, especially the tunes of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the composer who popularized a particular style of communal worship on New York's Upper West Side.
So back in February, Eisenstadt met with a group of roughly 10 other people -- friends and acquaintances, some who were new to Philly, some not -- and the result became the formation of Minyan Merkaz, an independent, egalitarian prayer-group committed to traditional liturgy. (Merkaz means "center" in Hebrew.)
"We are not trying to be a congregation. We're just trying to be a group of people who get together and pray," said Eisenstadt, who sits on the Minyan Merkaz steering committee. "We have people coming from Reform and Reconstructionist backgrounds, but the largest numbers are Conservative."
'Nice Way to End the Week'
From February to September, the minyan held monthly Friday-night services at the Trinity Center for Urban Life on the 2200 block of Spruce Street.
Now, the prayer group -- which, according to organizers, gets upward of 40 people attending each service -- has started experimenting with twice-monthly meetings, as well as organizing potluck dinners to supplement the more informal Shabbat dinners that have already been taking place.
"It's a really enjoyable experience. I've met a lot of people as a result," said Eisenstadt. "It's inspiring, it's spiritual -- it's a nice way to end the week.
"I've led davening for the second or third time in my life, and rediscoverd that I can do that," she stated. "We are encouraging people to find their own voices."
The group does not hold Saturday-morning services -- partly because it's much more difficult to find men and women capable of reading from the Torah aloud. Eisenstadt also said there are no plans to hold High Holiday services.
She also explained that the group seems to be outgrowing its space and may need to hold the services elsewhere, such as an area synagogue or another Jewish institution -- like the Gershman Y, for example.
"We see ourselves as a supplement. There are services that synagogues provide that we can't possibly provide," she acknowledged, also mentioning that she wasn't sure what percentage of attendees -- who tend to be generally between the ages of 25 to 35, and reside in Center City -- actually belong to a full-fledged congregation.
'It's the Outgoing Attitude'
"I think the key is that it's noncommittal," said Ami Monson, a Center City resident who has attended the minyan multiple times.
"There are no fees, and there is no commitment except for showing up," he added. "There is no exclusivity. Everybody is welcome. I think it's the outgoing attitude that has really brought people in."
Abbye Weingram, a 24-year-old general-studies teacher at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School's Stern Center, moved into Center City several months ago, and initially heard about the minyan from her two older brothers, who had already discovered it.
"I was really drawn to the age of the participants and the ruach" -- the "spirit" -- "of the services," said Weingram.
"The best thing is that they don't have traditions yet, they don't have anything set in stone. It's still being formed."