At a Sukkot barbecue in Bala Cynwyd over the weekend, children tossed around a football and played on a swing set while parents munched on kosher hot dogs. The evening chill sent other folks seeking the warmth of the stone house.
Though the festivities took place at an Orthodox home, it was an eclectic crowd of Jews. One mother of two, whose spouse is Catholic, hadn’t had much to do with Judaism since her Bat Mitzvah. There were several Jewish day school parents who said their Jewish involvement had previously felt more like an obligation than inspiration. And there was a husband and wife pair of ski instructors who had long ago traded in their lives as Conservative Jews in Blue Bell for an Orthodox lifestyle on the Main Line.
But many of the several dozen people in attendance did have something in common: They had been transfixed and inspired by Nili Couzens, the host of the event who, a year ago, co-founded — along with her husband, Rabbi Yakov Couzens — a new outreach organization called Jewish Life Seminars.
“I was inspired about Judaism in a way that I don’t think I have ever been before,” said Melanie Lieberman, a day school parent and member of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, who has been studying with Couzens for three years. “I always call her classes my compass. They bring me back to my center, to what is most important in life.”
The Philadelphia region has no shortage of Jewish outreach organizations — from nearly 40 Chabad-Lubavitch operations to Aish Philadelphia — seeking both to inspire Jews to experience the joys and purpose of Jewish life and to stem the tide of assimilation.
The Couzens are banking on the fact that, by targeting couples between the ages of 30 and 50 and utilizing two decades of experience in outreach, they can fill a niche in the community.
They are also beginning to move beyond their home turf on the Main Line by running programs and working with existing synagogues, such as Mikveh Israel in Old City, and organizations across the Philadelphia region, such as the Chevre. The group is cosponsoring an Oct. 15 program with the Perelman Jewish Day School.
They hope to surmount the inevitable challenge of serving diverse neighborhoods and sensibilities.
“We want people to experience that Judaism is relevant and it is enjoyable and is going to make their lives better in a practical way,” said Nili Couzens, a 43-year-old mother of six.
“My goal is that people should see Judaism as relevant and fun and meaningful, and how they choose to expresss that is between them and God,” she added, pointing out that her goal is not to convince Jews to become Orthodox. “If Jews don’t like being Jewish, if Jews don’t see Judaism as a source of light, they are just not going to want to keep it.”
Her husband, Yakov, put it this way: “We don’t believe in guilt, we are not into guilt anymore. Judaism is about pleasure and happiness. If you are ever talking about God, our belief is that God is on your side. He is not out to get you, he is not out to punish you.”
The Couzens are no strangers to the area. Both were raised on the Main Line — she in a Modern Orthodox family; he in the Reform movement. After graduating from high school, he moved to Israel and became Orthodox and, ultimately, a rabbi.
They married in Israel and in 1996 moved to South Africa to start a branch of Aish HaTorah, which was founded in Jerusalem in 1974 to promote Judaism and Israel among secular Jews globally. The organization operates a yeshiva, a rabbinical seminary, a popular website and has dozens of branches on six continents.
Two years later, they returned to their native city to build up Aish Philadelphia, which means “the fire of the Torah,” which had been sputtering here.
The Couzens grew the organization significantly but ultimately left in mid-2012. Though none of the parties would discuss the details on the record, it was widely known to be an acrimonious split, one that roiled parts of the Main Line community.
Yakov Couzens is still connected to Aish International, which is based in Jerusalem, doing fundraising and consulting for the group.
At the same time, the Couzens are attempting to start over with a different brand. Some participants have followed the couple over from Aish — which is now led by Rabbi Eli Kopel — and some have come to know them for the first time.
Yakov Couzens said the couple has moved on and now have a chance “to try and reach out, advise the greater Jewish community. It is much more exciting for us.”
While he’s very involved in the planning and organization-building, Nili Couzens is clearly the one front and center in their new venture, handling a lot of the programming and teaching.
She usually works most closely with women. The group’s 2012 gala launch featured an all-female crowd, but she is quick to point out that Jewish Life Seminars is not a women-only organization. The group runs men’s programing and the two subsequent gala events have featured co-ed crowds.
The couple is eschewing weekly classes, thinking that most people are too busy for that kind of commitment. Instead they are organizing seminars at participants’ homes. These sessions focus on practical topics such as Jewish parenting or personal ethics, as opposed to more esoteric concepts like Kabbalah. The idea is that, if someone gives up an hour, they should come back a better husband, wife or parent, they said.
The sessions are mostly taught by Nili Couzens or outside speakers, such as Rabbi Ken Spiro, senior lecturer and researcher for Aish HaTorah’s Discovery Seminars and the Jerusalem Online University.
Unlike Aish or Chabad, Jewish Life Seminars does not run a shul or any religious services.
“We are not a synagogue, we are not a day school, we are not a Hebrew school,” said Nili Couzens.
Jewish Life Seminars has unofficial advisers, and plenty of donors, but not an official board. Yakov Couzens said, “You put Jews on boards and something happens — they have delusions of something.”
Over the past year, the group has staged several gala events at the Merion Tribute House and run two highly subsidized Israel trips for women, totaling 20 participants, including Debra Magerman, wife of mega-philanthropist David Magerman. They also plan to run a trip for men this June.
The recent Sukkot barbecue was meant as a reunion for participants on the two Israel trips and their families. The group runs the trips along with an organization called the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project. People have apply to get one of the limited slots: They are looking for participants with children under the age of 18 living at home.
Lieberman, who went on the group’s first trip in December and returned as a counselor for the May trip, said that being away from family and around other women allows participants to concentrate on their own spiritual growth in a way that’s near impossible in everyday life.
“We just get to focus on ourselves. We are fed, we are sheltered, we are being taught. It’s almost a joke. Like three days into it, you’re like, ‘Remember the kids, remember them back there at home,’ ” she said.
Michele Ferretti of Phoenixville in Chester County attended the barbecue with her husband, Dan, and daughters Lauren, 10, and Kati, 7. After a friend introduced her to Couzens, she jumped in with both feet to apply for the May trip, even though, she said, she was hesitant about doing something run by Orthodox Jews.
Now, the couple is introducing aspects of Shabbat at home. They are planning to join a synagogue, but aren’t sure, with their daughters’ busy sports schedules, if they will sign them up for Hebrew school.
Dan Ferretti, 40, who is not Jewish, said he’s supportive of his wife’s efforts to rediscover her faith and instill that tradition in their children.
“As a non-Jew, she speaks in a way I can understand,” he said, referring to Couzens.
Chaya Lyons, a 58-year-old ski instructor who became Orthodox about a decade ago after studying with Couzens, helped lead the group’s Israel trip in December. “They are very non-judgmental. They bring observant Judaism into your life in a way that enriches your life, ” she said.
She likened her discovery of Judaism to the Wizard of Oz. Before, it was like she was Dorothy, living in Kansas in a black and white world.
“And when I came to Nili and I came to learn about Judaism, it was like I stepped off into the land of Oz and everything was Technicolor.”