After 13 years, Chevra found a permanent headquarters in Center City.
If you are a Jewish millennial living in Philadelphia, it’s likely you’ve heard of the Chevra.
The organization caters to young professionals and grad students in their 20s and 30s and offers events and programs like its Philly-Israel Fellowship (PIF) each year.
Until recently, its “headquarters” were really wherever there was space and availability in the city. Today, 13 years after its founding, the organization has a permanent home at 2002 Ludlow Street in Center City.
Having a designated space for the organization was part of the original vision co-founders Aryeh Cohen and Jon Erlbaum and his wife, Jessica, who also serves as associate director, had.
The organization began as a way to target what Cohen and the Erlbaums saw as a gap in the Jewish experience for younger people. Or, as Jon Erlbaum put it, “the No. 1” problem facing the Jewish people: “over 50 percent Jewish apathy, non-affiliation and unawareness.”
“We were fueled by the belief that when Jews don’t feel pride or passion about being Jewish, they often become disconnected from their community, Jewish causes and values, Israel, etc.,” Erlbaum wrote in an email. “The Chevra confronts these realities by empowering the leaders of tomorrow via dynamic, out-of-the box experiences — in a warm, inclusive and cutting-edge environment.”
The new space, which opened incrementally starting in March of last year, is divided over four floors, each with its own purpose.
The first floor has a homey, open feel complete with themes of reds, teals and browns and an exposed brick wall that would make any HGTV enthusiast happy.
It’s a Starbucks-esque environment with scattered café tables and chairs that people can use to sit and talk or do work. There’s also a functional, stocked bar for parties and events, as well as two couches facing a coffee table that also serves as the “urban campfire” — it is used for making s’mores during certain events.
The other key feature of the room is a fully equipped stage, which makes it easier to host bands or hold musical events.
The space opens into an art gallery that will feature local works as well as works by Israeli artists. Huge barn doors give the space the option of being open during large events or closed to make it a more private area for a lecture or other program.
A door on the side wall leads to a small courtyard outside that they hope to be able to develop and refurbish so they can add tables and chairs and make the space functional.
Heading up the stairs (which were painted with patterns and Jewish symbols by Chevra COO Leon Vinokur’s wife, Nisa, and her friend Balage Balogh, both accomplished artists), there is a “multipurpose space,” as Vinokur calls it, which features TVs and a half-moon setup of chairs that allow the space to be used for lectures or for Shabbat dinners, as two examples. There is a kitchen area that they are working on finishing up to make it fully functional.
The third floor features a conference room, offices and a learning library. The fourth floor is rented to two commercial tenants while the first and second floors are sometimes rented out by other organizations, such as JRA and Israel Bonds for retreats, social events, and board meetings.
These features reinforce the mission behind the organization of building the Jewish community and connection for the younger generation, and what the space will enhance.
“We’re not a synagogue,” Vinokur said. “We’re a gathering spot.”
For Aryeh Cohen, the space was inspired to recreate time he had spent in Israel.
“I always felt that the best way to do this was to not only provide creative social and educational programming,” Cohen wrote in an email, “but to create a venue that people would feel was their second home. When I was in 11th grade, I attended the High School for Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia. While I was there, I had a dream of creating a coffeehouse and cabaret where artists and patrons could experience and collaborate. Now that I was involved in Judaism, I wanted to fuse these ideas together.”
The process of establishing the building as the Chevra’s home was very “organic,” Vinokur said.
They found the building in 2009. The timing presented its own problems: People were still trying to recover from the recession just as the Chevra was asking for donations for this new project. It ended up being a $4 million endeavor, including the acquisition of the space.
The Jewish community helped a great deal as far as fundraising and donations for making the space a reality. Contributors included Jewish Federation Real Estate, an affinity group of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, among many other groups and individuals.
The location of the space was key.
“We knew we wanted to be and needed to be in the general Rittenhouse area,” Vinokur said. “This is the area where millennials live, work, play.”
Programs such as a big Chanukah bash have already been held in the space, giving the more than 300 participants who came a chance to check it out, and this is just the beginning, Vinokur said — they’re also planning a big Purim event for the space next month.
“I like to say we’re just getting warmed up,” he said. “We have a lot of programming that we’re ready to break out and launch over the coming months, including the next installment of the Philly-Israel Fellowship.”
PIF is one of the biggest anchors of the organization. It combines educational activities and volunteerism in Philadelphia and culminates in a 12-day trip to Israel over the summer.
Asya Zlatina first got involved with the Chevra through volunteering and participating in PIF in 2012; she now serves as coordinator and liaison for the program.
Having this new space will allow the organization to continue to grow, she said.
“It’s a very different feeling when you have a place that you can call your home,” she said. “Week to week, this is where we live, this is where our events take place. Before, Chevra was like a floating — good, stable but kind of floating — kind of object and now it has a permanent residence. It’s rooted in Philadelphia.”
Erlbaum is looking forward to what’s to come.
“Thankfully, the venue has already helped to create even more demand for our well-known, established events (e.g. in the realms of Jewish education, Jewish culture and music, etc.),” he wrote. “But I’m also excited about some of the new ‘edutainment’-style events the space will allow us to provide, including: art exhibitions, Jewish game shows and Quizzo nights, film screenings, theme-based date nights for couples (and relationship-enhancement evenings), etc.”
Vinokur echoed that sense of excitement.
“I think this place is going to be a real source of pride for the whole Jewish community. This really captures that original idea of a vibrant community space,” he said. “We’re not just educational, we’re not just social, we’re not just culture, not just spirituality, not just Israel — we’re trying to bring it all together into a sense of belonging to the Jewish experience in Philadelphia.”