Izzy Cutler walked in with a PowerPoint and a sales pitch.
As a freshman, she struggled to find and connect with the other Jewish students at William Penn Charter School. So she approached faculty member Sandy Portnoy with a solution. The plan: Start a Jewish culture club.
While they vary by name, high schools throughout Greater Philadelphia are home to these non-religious student-run groups, mostly centered around socializing and commemorating Jewish holidays. It was something the Quaker private school had lacked.
“I thought that was kind of weird, because I felt like a lot of high schools had had that,” Cutler said. “Having that group and that community and a space where that was something I could do was important to me, and I thought it was something that Penn Charter could definitely benefit from.”
With school approval and Portnoy on board as club adviser, Club Shalom was born. While Cutler has since gone on to attend college out of state, the group has continued to meet about bimonthly, with 10 to 25 students attending its lunchtime meetings.
Meetings have consisted of activities like making mini sukkahs out of graham crackers, holiday parties and guest speakers discussing life in Israel or anti-Semitism. For Tu B’Shevat, a student gave a presentation on the origins of the holiday; after that, the group ate grapes and figs to represent the seven species mentioned in the Torah.
Outside of school, the club has organized groups of volunteers to help package and deliver food for the Jewish Relief Agency.
Club leaders Ellie Stamps and Olivia Schwartz, along with member Makayla Fradin, described the club as an opportunity to network with the school’s Jewish population.
“Just being around your friends, being together as a Jewish community in a predominantly not Jewish school, is fun,” Schwartz said.
Free food is a common staple for the clubs. That was a draw for Emmett Gordon, the club secretary of the Jewish Student Union at Central High School.
“Probably most people, Jewish or not Jewish, (are like), ‘If there’s food I’m there. If there’s not, then I’m not,’” Gordon said.
But what originally attracted the senior to join freshman year (aside from the food) was the club’s “super chill” reputation, along with the chance to hang out with friends.
Club president and senior Lily Cohen cited the club’s community outreach, such as participation in Gratz College’s annual Holocaust Symposium, as another draw. She said the club offers students the chance to come together as a Jewish community.
“It felt really important to stay connected to my Judaism — and make sure that anywhere I go, I can find people who are similar to me,” Cohen said.
Gordon described the club’s atmosphere as informal and casual. He said his favorite club activities are the Chanukah parties, as it’s the biggest crowd and offers the most sweets and goodies. One year, the students played dreidel, but since they didn’t have any chocolate gelt, they used ibuprofen instead “because that was the only small, numerous thing we had.” A little unorthodox, but a good time nonetheless.
Gordon is one of about 42,500 children in the Greater Philadelphia area being raised Jewish, according to the “Community Portrait: A 2019 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia,” which was recently released by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Only 7% of the area’s Jewish students attend a Jewish day school or yeshiva. The vast majority attend schools where Jews are in the minority, as Jews only make up about 9% of the area’s general population.
For Gordon, the club is his only opportunity to participate in the Jewish holidays outside of synagogue or with his family.
While many Jewish students are familiar with the traditions, there are others, like senior Annalisa Quinn, who come to learn and explore their Jewish heritage. Quinn’s grandmother was raised Jewish, but later converted to Catholicism. So the club treasurer started attending club meetings freshman year to learn about the traditions and customs that some of her relatives practice.
A number of students who attend club meetings are neither Jewish nor looking to learn about Jewish culture. For them, the driving factor is the chance to hang out with friends who happen to be Jewish. But often they come away with more than just free grub. Last year, Club Shalom held a mock-bar mitzvah for a non-Jewish student, complete with a Torah portion reading (in English) and celebration with a hora chair dance, Portnoy said.
Zoe Bailkin, vice president of Central’s culture club, said what’s common knowledge for most Jewish members can be insightful for non-Jews.
“We had a Chanukah party, and we showed everyone how you light the candles a specific way. And that’s something I do every year with my family, so I’m used to it. But for other people, it was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that,’” Bailkin said. “For me, it would seem very repetitive as I’ve been learning this since I was 5 years old, but for others it’s a new experience for them.”
For Jewish students, the clubs offer a safe space to discuss current events. That was a driving factor for J. Fassler and Max Lasdon, co-leaders of the Jewish Culture Club at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington. The two described the club as a place to decompress about events in the news, such as the Tree of Life shooting or the recent attacks on Jews in New York and New Jersey.
“At this time, in the world we live in, we just want a place where if an issue comes up, we have a place to go talk,” Lasdon said.
At Central, Gordon said the club has experienced a slight shift in recent years, going from a space solely for students to have fun and partake in the holidays, to a place where the school’s Jews can reinforce their Jewish identity.
“It’s sort of more of a focus on the cultural elements and education to that effect,” Gordon said. “And a lot of that is due to the current religious or social climate, rise of hate crimes and that sort of stuff.”