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December 14, 2011 By:
Seeking a Young Professional Comeback
It didn't take long for David Zellis to find what he was looking for when he signed up for a Young Jewish Leadership Concepts vacation to Jamaica. He can't even remember much about the trip because he was engrossed in his future wife, Sheryl.
"I was so in love. How could I pay attention to anybody else?" joked Zellis, 51, an attorney from Langhorne.
Though the couple didn't stay involved in the group, known as YJLC, they made a point of showing up to a dinner Sunday night to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
David and Sheryl Zellis hold up a T-shirt from the trip where they met.
By organizers' accounts, the Zellises are among more than 100 people who met their spouses through programs the YJLC organized over the past quarter century, and thousands of others who made connections with fellow young Jewish professionals.
Today, the YJLC is arguably the least-prominent and least active group on the local Jewish 20s and 30s scene, which includes the Collaborative, the Chevra, Davai, the Renaissance Group and several others.
While it's a shadow of what it used to be, founder Lou Balcher believes his nonprofit still serves a niche and he's hoping to find funding to make a comeback.
"We've given young adults the opportunity to use their creativity to do something special in the community," he said. "We need to come together," to ensure that keeps happening, he urged the roughly 120 mostly past participants who attended the anniversary program at Mikveh Israel in Old City.
Balcher's background in community organizing dates back more than 30 years to his role as president of the Hillel chapter at Ohio State University. He later served as a regional membership director for B'nai Brith International, an outreach coordinator for Gratz College's Jewish Community High School and a synagogue education director before taking on his current role as the director of academic affairs for the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia.
He met his own wife, Jocelyne, while organizing a B'nai Brith singles tour and the two created YJLC in 1986, the same year they were married in Jerusalem.
Their first event, a dance party to promote travel to Israel, drew more than 100 people, Balcher recalled. Even more came to the next one, he said, and soon "the parties took on a life of their own" with up to 1,000 guests. A handful of part-time interns organized social events, trips and community service activities.
"He was the original what might have been JDate," said Carole Felton, who runs a marketing and public relations firm in Bala Cynwyd.
David Zellis said he doubted he would have crossed paths with his wife if not for the YJLC trip to Jamaica. At the time, he said, he'd just moved to Bucks County to work for the district attorney and Sheryl, an occupational therapist, was living in Roxborough. She said she signed up for the trip with the expectation of having a relaxing vacation in a Jewish context.
"If you have 11 people on a trip, what are the odds of meeting a husband?" Sheryl Zellis said. But there he was, sharing a snack cake with her on the plane because neither of them liked the food. "It was beshert."
Aside from sparking relationships, Balcher considers YJLC's greatest success to be connecting busy young adults with the organized Jewish community and Israel.
To that end, he put together a 14-day "Israel Encounter" tour designed to take young professionals through the country without any political or organizational agenda. They ran more than 20 trips, Balcher said, stopping in 2001 with the advent of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.
"It's hard to compete with a free trip," Balcher said.
Though Balcher no longer hosts huge dances or cross-country trips, he still runs annual "weekend escapes" to the Poconos and draws on his connections to the Israeli community to arrange periodic educational programs and guest lectures.
It was one of those speakers that first attracted Adda Grimberg, a pediatric endocrinologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, to YJLC in 2005.
"We get such a biased view of Israel from the media, so for me it's almost like a reality check to hear perspectives from Israelis themselves," said Grimberg, who was born in Israel and lives in Penn Valley.
With Balcher's help, Grimberg later organized a program of her own, coordinating with a colleague who was in town for a conference to talk about his experiences accompanying the Israel Defense Forces to flush out terrorist headquarters in Jenin.
She spoke briefly about that Sunday as she joined more than a dozen others in a Bar Mitzvah-style candlelighting ceremony. Much of the anniversary program harkened back to past events, including a video clip promoting the former Israel trips, though honors were also awarded to current community leaders Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski and attorney Eli Gabay.
Before closing the presentation, Balcher urged the audience to help him build YJLC into an organization with a national presence as recognizable as JDate.
That could be a lofty mission considering that he has no budget and only about a dozen people at the event actually appeared to fall within the young professionals category.
But Balcher said he thinks there could be a market for reviving a "Jewish Singles Outreach Project" that synagogues and other organizations would contract to engage young adults in their respective areas.
"We have a kind of unique perspective on how to do this where it's inclusionary with mainstream Jewish organizations," he said, adding that YJLC would look within the "ranks" of family members already involved in the established Jewish community to link to young adults.
Doing this will continue to be a huge challenge, Balcher said, but that's exactly why he can't give up.
Perhaps young adults today might be more reluctant to sign up for the type of singles programs or vacations that YJLC specialized in when it's so much easier, and cheaper, to go online, David Zellis said, but it can't hurt to have more opportunities.
"We need all the help we can get to keep our Jewish community growing," he said.