Patrons packed into the Montgomery Auditorium at the Free Library of Philadelphia on March 27 to hear from popular authors Nathan Englander and Thomas Mallon, each with a new novel to hawk and sign after the reading.
For those in attendance, it surely was a stimulating evening.
And for those who attended with the Boomer Engagement Network, a relatively new program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, it was the cap to another evening of fun and friends for a cohort whose social needs are being increasingly catered to here.
“It’s a real need,” said Penina Hoffnung, senior manager of community engagement at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
BEN, as its called, was originally borne of a grant from the Center for Jewish Life and Learning (CJLL) to Jewish Learning Venture to help synagogues and other community institutions develop programming for boomers, and especially single boomers. As a generational cohort, something in the range of 42-48 percent are single due to the unique prevalence of divorce and going unmarried among them.
Clergy in the Philadelphia area noticed that they were slipping through the program cracks, but didn’t quite have the “organizational bandwidth” in Hoffnung’s words, to deal with the scope of the problem. That’s where she and BEN came in.
The first step came with recognizing that institutions once so central to Jewish life did not hold the same gravitational pull as they once did.
“The community is changing so very much,” Hoffnung said, “and while we support our legacy institutions, like synagogues and whatever, we know that that’s not how people are primarily identifying Jewishly, and everybody’s scrambling to see how people might engage Jewishly, and we’re trying to figure that out along with the community.”
In the six months since BEN’s founding, Hoffnung, who was most recently director of education for a Conservative synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee, began to compile a list single Jewish boomers culled from associated Facebook groups, word of mouth and other sources.
Then she set out to come up with social outings that fit a variety of criteria: geographical spread, a certain diversity of events and affordability (though members pay no dues, they do pay their own way at individual events). Events are typically loosely connected to Judaism itself.
Thus far, Hoffnung has founds successes (though she is loathe to use the term, “mostly because I was raised by a Jewish mother who made you spit when said that”). A Shabbat dinner, of which she was initially skeptical, drew a sizable crowd and returned rave reviews. The Englander/Mallon outing, which began with a trip to Unit Su Vege, was well received, as have the numerous dinners and happy hours attended by the group.
“Wonderful people have been turning out,” she said. “It’s really been a lovely, lovely group of people.”
Dave Bell, a writer and merchant mariner, has been to four or five BEN events already, and is starting to develop friendships with the other semi-regulars.
“The quality is good, the food is always good and Penina is a great host,” he said. “She makes sure everyone is introduced to each other.”
In the future, Hoffnung would like to add more outdoor events, though she’s doing her best to let the group determine the nature of the programming; the successful Shabbat dinner was a result of a small ad-hoc planning committee of regulars. Her goal of keeping Jewish boomers engaged with the community, however, will remain the same.
“We’re the generation that started a lot of things, but at this point maybe we don’t wanna put that effort any more we just want it to be there,” she said. Besides, “there are other places to go.
“They — we — are a meaning driven generation of seekers, so we’ll keep seeking elsewhere if we can’t find it at home.”
How about having a BEN dance for boomers here in Center City that is advertised both in the popular Exponent and the Voice, that is published by the JCC over in Cherry Hill, to draw many Delaware Valley Jewish middle-aged singles together, may of whom are lonely by themselves? This would be a mitzvah to many of us. The more the merrier. P.S. We do not need an expensive DJ, just soft recorded music in the background.