Jews in their 20s, 30s and 40s don’t necessarily engage with traditional forms of Jewish community and outreach, said Molly Wernick, the new director of jkidphilly, a program of the nonprofit Jewish Learning Venture.
“We’re going to continue to need something that extends beyond what the previous institutional offerings have been,” said Wernick, 35, who lives in South Philadelphia.
Her family of almost four doesn’t belong to a synagogue.
“I have spent my career as a Jewish community professional, and my husband, Andrew, is a Jewish educator. Congregational life does not meet us where we are,” she said.
Their toddler, Miller, goes to a neighborhood preschool. She has a second baby along the way.
“By all definitions, looking backward at the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey, we would be classified as Jews of no religion,” she said. “That could not feel more backwards than how we are actually building our family and what we are building within our Jewish community. Folks who live in South Philly like me might have a life that looks very different than those who live in Bucks County.”
She said her role with jkidphilly gives her “an opportunity to build empowered Jewish engagement for today’s families. It’s not one size fits all,” she said.
The program for Jewish families takes place in public spaces across Greater Philadelphia. jkidphilly offers opportunities to celebrate Jewish holidays, take part in kid-friendly social action activities and connect with other families raising Jewish children.
On Nov. 12, Jewish children created artwork with Israeli artist Hanoch Piven. The event took place at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History.
“It’s happening in community with other families who are looking to connect with one another outside of a traditional institutional context,” Wernick said.
She is excited to “be working with an organization that is asking these really pivotal questions about how to meaningfully engage families including groups that have been historically marginalized in our Jewish community.” Wernick is referring to families with Jews of color, LGBTQ families or interfaith families.
“Families in any sort of configuration, feeling like they deserve to feel like there is Jewish community for them. They may have an experience of a Jewish community that is not historically hospitable to their families and able to meet their needs,” Wernick said. “We’re doing such exciting, sensitive and very intentional work to be able to really create a connected and empowered Jewish community here in the Philadelphia area.
“There are individuals in Philadelphia and surrounding counties who are building engagement experiences that are not exclusively centered around coming to a synagogue and eventually joining.”
“Now more than ever, whether it’s the epidemic of loneliness that people are experiencing or really wanting to connect with other members of the Jewish community as a result of the Israel-Hamas war, we at jkidsphilly are able to offer those experiences.”
Wernick was raised in Elkins Park, and her family belonged to Congregation Adath Jeshurun.
The most formative part of her Jewish identity was her 14 years at Camp Galil as a camper and then as a professional. She became one of the camp’s directors.
Her time there “taught me how to build, design and facilitate meaningful Jewish experiences. I learned to tell stories of Jewish history in an experiential way.”
She participated in a gap year program in Israel and worked in Arab Israeli communities by the Sea of Galilee.
“I did coexistence work with teens there,” she said. “It really lent itself to a unique insight into the story of an Arab Israeli population that is significantly misunderstood.”
Wernick graduated from Ithaca College and worked for Hillel for several years on campus education programs.
“I was really able to bring that same sense of youth empowerment,” she said.
Wernick also worked for the nonprofit Tribe 12 for two years doing engagement for Jews in their 20s and 30s.
After that, she attended graduate school at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She earned a master’s degree in nonprofit management and leadership development.
Wernick relocated to New York and took a job with Jewish Federations of North America.
She then returned to Camp Galil as the community director.
“It was very special to have that homecoming to the Galil community,” she said.
She also worked for a time at Philadelphia’s Repair the World program.
She noted that she works in partnership with Jewish congregational leaders.
“I have so much appreciation and admiration for their congregations and what their congregations offer. But the prayer connection isn’t necessarily how we express our Judaism,” she said. “I’m building Jewish experiences for my community in a way that is significant and meaningful and meets them where they are.”
Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.