A Minyan Grows From Its Spruce Street Roots

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It all began about three years ago in an apartment in the Gayborhood where two roommates in their early 20s were — as one described — eating ice cream late at night and wondering where they were going to daven that week.

The roommates, Gabi Wachs and Lilli Flink, had tried different synagogues in Center City, but nothing felt quite like what they sought. That was when they decided to try hosting a service themselves, for just them and a dozen or so friends, in their Spruce Street apartment.

Barrack alumni at a Spruce Street Minyan gathering
Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy alumni at a Spruce Street Minyan service and dinner that was sponsored by the school (Photo by Jenifer Kiefer Wachs)

Today, Spruce Street Minyan meets about once a month on Friday evenings, in rooms at the Philadelphia Ethical Society or the William Way Community Center. About 80 people attend the monthly gatherings, where they have Kabbalat Shabbat/Maariv services and then a potluck dinner.

The davening is egalitarian and lay led, with attendees sitting in a circle, and the food is intentionally inclusive. Different tables separate dishes by kashrut level, so attendees who don’t keep a kosher kitchen can feel like they can bring something, while attendees who keep kosher can feel like they can eat.

“We’re really grassroots and homegrown,” said Rebecca Herzberg, who now makes up part of the group’s leadership. “We’re kind of nomads. We go from one place to another. We don’t always know where we’ll be the following month, and it just really attracts people who grew up with all different types of Jewish backgrounds.”

Several months ago, Spruce Street Minyan incorporated as a nonprofit entity. With that status, the minyan has some staying power and can fundraise more effectively. This summer, the minyan also held a happy hour, and it recently kicked off a “Brachas and Beers” learning program to teach community members how to lead services.

On Oct. 5, the minyan will partner with the South Philadelphia Shtiebel for a seudah shlishit.

“Spruce Street Minyan happened by accident,” explained Wachs, who now lives in Israel. “It was this beautiful surprise gift that came out of a desire to have a robust Jewish life in Philadelphia.”

Wachs grew up in the Philadelphia area, where she attended Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El and spent summers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos.

She went on to attend a double degree program with Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. There she met Flink, who had a similar Jewish upbringing in Deerfield, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

Later, after college, Wachs moved back home to Philadelphia. Flink, too, wound up in the City of Brotherly Love, as a medical student. They decided to live together.

They also attended different services in Center City together, but nothing was quite what they wanted. One late night, they decided they would host their own minyan.

They invited a group of friends to their Spruce Street apartment, where they davened together, then had a potluck dinner.

The two roommates kept hosting Shabbat services and dinners, and more people kept coming. After a few months, they were no longer able to fit inside the apartment, so they moved the minyans into larger apartments and homes.

“The word kept slowly spreading,” said Ben Philipson, who attended the first minyan and now makes up part of the group’s leadership. “There weren’t advertisements. There was a little Facebook group that was private. It was the best-kept secret in Philly in some ways. It kept growing and kept moving into bigger homes and, finally, we were in the biggest house any of us knew anybody had, and there were 75 people there.”

That was one of the last times they met in a house, Philipson recalled.

Wachs and Flink obtained a microgrant from Hadar, which they used to rent larger spaces. They met in community rooms in apartment buildings and at CityCoHo. Then, they started meeting at the Philadelphia Ethical Society and William Way, which have become the group’s main venues.

About a year ago, Wachs moved to Israel. In her place, Herzberg and Philipson joined the group’s leadership — with its nonprofit status, the members of the leadership are now officially on its board. When Flink started working as a medical resident earlier this year, she left the leadership, too, and several more people joined in her place.

Moving forward, Philipson said, they may add a second minyan — without an accompanying potluck — to give people an opportunity to daven together but then do something else for dinner.

They will probably also continue holding other programs, like the happy hours or “Brachas and Beers,” but the goal will be to build a community around their main, original mission — providing a unique davening space in Philadelphia.

“We fit nicely into what I would call the Philadelphia Jewish marketplace, where we offer a really specific experience around a really soulful, beautiful, traditional and unapologetically egalitarian davening experience,” Philipson said.

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