If the United States is the “melting pot” — a combination of disparate traditions and cultures blended into one — then perhaps Spruce Street Minyan could be considered a melting pot for millennial and Generation Z Jews.
During its monthly gatherings, about 50-100 young Jews, mainly young professionals and graduate students, convene on Friday night at their rented space at the Philadelphia Ethical Society in Rittenhouse Square and participate in lay-led, egalitarian services, blending the traditions and rituals that its diverse membership grew up with.
“We have people who most frequently attend the Modern Orthodox shuls in Philadelphia, such as Mekor Habracha, or the South Philly Shtiebel that will come to our events, even if they didn’t necessarily grow up going to egalitarian services,” minyan board member Doug Russ said. “We have people who grew up Conservative, Reform or even unaffiliated, and we try to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible.”
During services, phones go off and are put away to be sensitive to attendees who are shomer Shabbos. For every potluck kiddush, there are kosher and kosher-style buffet tables for the respective dishes to accommodate those keeping kosher, though everyone dines together. In addition to monthly services, the group hosts happy hours and picnics, which for some members, “may be the Jewish thing they do,” Russ said.
“Because we’re entirely volunteer-led, the leaders of the service change,” board member Talia Berday-Sacks said. “So we’re always trying to showcase a different person who might represent a different community.”
Composed of transplants to the city or young people who are just starting to call Philadelphia home, Spruce Street Minyan takes an “organic” approach to its programming, prioritizing engagement and the changing social needs of its community.
“What’s really cool about Philly is there are so many small, grassroots groups that fulfill really, really specific niches, and you can enable them to survive and thrive if that’s what you’re looking to do,” Berday-Sacks said. “I mean, we are here; we’ve been around for five years.”
Before its regular Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Ethical Society, Spruce Street Minyan had its beginnings in 2016 at a predictable location: Spruce Street, in an apartment nestled in the Gayborhood rented by two recent college graduates, Gabi Wachs and Lilli Flink.
Wachs grew up in Philadelphia and attended Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El; she met Flink, a Chicago native, at Barnard College, and the two relocated to Philadelphia, where they spent their weekends fruitlessly trying to find a spiritual space they clicked with.
They finally decided to host Shabbat services at a potluck dinner at their apartment, and, after a few months of consistent gathering, the makeshift minyan had swelled and outgrown the Spruce Street place.
Though Spruce Street Minyan is no longer located on its eponymous street, the group hasn’t strayed far from its roots. The goal is still to bring together young Jewish people in search of connections.
“It’s really meaningful to help forge those connections,” Russ said. “And people keep coming back because I think they really derive a lot of spiritual meaning out of it, but also build a lot of community from it, too.”
When Tova Perlman graduated from her graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania in 2021, she looked for both a spiritually and socially fulfilling Jewish space before she found Spruce Street Minyan.
“In general, it’s hard to make friends post-college,” she said. “It’s hard to have gathering spaces where you see the same people over and over again and build those relationships.”
Jewish 20- and 30-somethings in Philadelphia have had success in building community, largely because it’s a small, big city, Perlman said. She’ll see the people she met at Spruce Street Minyan again at Moishe House or Tribe12 events, cementing connections that would have otherwise remained fleeting.
Particularly during the pandemic, Perlman said, “peripheral friendships” — the casual relationships one has through work or a shared interest — became near impossible to find.
“Spruce Street has provided a good platform for building my network again, which I really appreciate,” she said.
Russ said that in addition to providing opportunities in the evening to shmooze, the potluck after services has resulted in such lively conversation that minyan attendees have stayed until after 10 p.m., at which point they were asked to leave because the Ethical Society building was closing.
This enthusiasm is necessary to sustain Spruce Street Minyan. Made up primarily of a demographic that is in a transitional time in their lives, the group experiences a decent amount of turnover. The minyan relies on young people whose lives have been enriched by the small spiritual community.
“We exist,” Berday-Sacks said, “because of really dedicated members who give back.”