In the early 20th century, the Greater Philadelphia area was home to dozens of Folkshuls — Jewish organizations that provided Yiddish and secular Jewish education to children in the city’s Strawberry Mansion, Overbrook Park and West Philadelphia neighborhoods, among others.
Founded by Eastern European immigrants looking to pass down Jewish heritage and knowledge, Folkshuls thrived by providing practical education to the next generation of Jews — the children of members of the Workmen’s Circle, Labor Zionists and the pro-Soviet Jewish People’s Fraternal Order.
But as the decades wore on, the younger generations of Jews became detached from their families’ immigration stories, losing interest in the language of their now-dead relatives. By the ’60s and ’70s, Folkshuls merged to create the critical mass to sustain classes. By the 1980s, many had closed altogether.
And then, in 2022, there was one.
The Jewish Children’s Folkshul & Adult Community, which claims to be Philadelphia’s last standing Folkshul, carries on the secular humanistic tradition introduced to the Philadelphia Jewish community more than a
Home to about 85 adult members at its Chestnut Hill location, the Folkshul provides Jewish education and breit mitzvah (its gender-neutral term for Jewish coming of age) training to 47 children, from kindergarten to ninth grade. Nine assistants, teenage alumni of the Folkshul, are paid to help out in the classrooms.
From the youth leadership development program to its social and environmental justice projects, meditation groups and restaurant club, Folkshul casts an intentionally wide net to encompass its community. Its secular humanistic sensibilities pervade its culture of welcoming others, which has allowed the congregation to grow, even during the pandemic and a zeitgeist of synagogue downsizing.
“You’re Jewish if you feel Jewish,” Beth Ann Margolis Rupp, Folkshul’s executive director, said.
According to Rupp, Jewish secular humanism celebrates Judaism beyond its theology and texts. The congregation eschews the label “synagogue” and is lay-led, save for a director of life cycles who facilitates celebrations of birth, death and marriage.
“When I think about it from a Jewish point of view, I recall all that is Jewish beyond God,” Rupp said of secular humanism. “So that would include culture, history, ancestry — which is our human connection. Beyond the historical perspective, it is the culture with the arts and music and everything else that fits within that context.”
Rupp joined the Folkshul in 1982 as a teacher. She stayed for a few years, left to travel and focus on her career as a teacher at the Philadelphia School, but returned, becoming the community’s director in 2019, then executive director last spring.
Rupp’s story mirrors that of many Folkshul members. The children’s education program has a 90% retention rate, with most breit mitzvah students choosing to continue their Jewish education at the Folkshul, even after their milestone. Three teachers at the Folkshul are Folkshul alumni.
The community’s secular humanistic philosophy establishes broad Jewish values while meeting the needs of individual students and congregants.
“We look at the world from a scientific and humanity perspective — how those two things come together,” Rupp said. “And the Jewish lens of that is what affords us the strength of what is the functional community, and that’s what makes Folkshul work.”
Beyond retaining its young members, Folkshul is starting to gain attention outside of its immediate community. Between partnering with JCCs and co-hosting tashlich with Jewish Learning Venture, word is getting out that the Folkshul is still alive and well, according to program director Leah Siemiarowski Wright.
“A large portion of it is that people are finally realizing we exist,” she said of Folkshul’s growing membership.
Siemiarowski Wright cites a 2020 Pew Research Center study that found that 41% of Jews reported no affiliation with a particular denomination. They were called “Jews of no religion.”
“And they are Folkshul Jews; they just don’t know it yet,” she said.
A spiritual catch-all and a home for young Jewish families, the Folkshul prides itself on its practicality, a secret sauce to building community, even if its congregants’ lives are busy or in flux.
Liz Goldberg has been a Folkshul member for nine years. Her three children — two twins in the ninth grade and a fourth grader — are Folkshul students. She appreciates that at Folkshul, “everything happens on the Sunday.”
While her children are at religious school, she and her husband can attend adult education classes at the same time. As the children have fostered friendships through their Jewish learning, so, too, have the adults.
“As an adult, there’s not a lot of space for you to just kind of get to sit and interact with and get to know other like-minded adults,” Goldberg said. “That social network is really important to us as adults, and we have just really appreciated finding this place where we can be Jewish; we can talk about our ethics and our values, talk about what Judaism means to us, think about how we can integrate it into our lives.”