If you make a left turn out of Hymie's Deli in Merion, and head about 25 yards west on Montgomery Avenue, you will come to a building marked "Philadelphia Community Kollel." If you walk inside, almost any hour of the day or night, you will find Jews, often in groups of two (chavrusa), studying Jewish law.
The participants are not denizens of another age, misplaced in our society. Rather, the Kollel is filled with many of Philadelphia's leading cardiologists, litigators, investment professionals and psychologists who have decided to forego a night of poker or watching the Phillies, for the joy of studying Jewish Law.
Where did this affinity for law come from? This week, we celebrated Shavuot, the holiday devoid of props. No menorahs, matzah, latkes, sukkahs, lulavs or etrogs. On Shavuot, Jews traditionally stay up all night studying Torah, re-enacting the moment thousands of years ago when Jews and Torah first met.
In the ensuing 3,000 years, the passion for the law has been one of the defining characteristics of Jews in every century and everywhere they've lived. In the United States, this passion for law has gone beyond Torah, manifesting itself in avid participation in the legal profession. Throughout American history, and even when confronted by discrimination, Jews have managed to excel as both practitioners and legal scholars.
This level of achievement is manifest in the contributions of Jews to the U.S. Supreme Court. Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter and Benjamin Cardozo were appointed to the court long before Jews were admitted to the nation's leading law firms. In our own day, we take pride in the fact that three of the nine sitting justices -- Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan -- are Jewish.
Jewish Law Day is our city's extraordinary tradition for celebrating the contributions of Jewish lawyers to our country's system of justice. Each year more than 200 lawyers, judges, rabbis and members of the community gather to share their commitment to the law. The focus of this event is a speech given annually by a leading Jewish scholar.
Last year's speaker was Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, who addressed more than 250 attendees with her dramatic story of prevailing in an English libel suit brought by a Holocaust denier. This year, the speaker is University of Pennsylvania Professor David Ruderman, one of the world's pre-eminent scholars of Jewish intellectual history.
Not by accident did the tradition of Jewish Law Day take root here. Philadelphia lawyers are known for their resourcefulness in representing clients and their dedication to public service. One of the consequences of the demise of primarily "Jewish" law firms in recent years is that there have been few opportunities for Jewish lawyers to come together as colleagues. Jewish Law Day provides the opportunity for lawyers to share, intellectually and socially, a common heritage.
Steven A. Asher is a member of Weinstein Kitchenoff & Asher LLC, and co-chair of this year's Jewish Law Day, which will be held Tuesday, June 14, at 4:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Services Building, 2100 Arch St. The event is free and open to the public. No advance registration is necessary.