Local group fosters cultural Judaism

by Kristin Holmes
Posted 9/15/21

 Sarah Gentry says she didn’t intend to raise her two children to be Jewish. It just kind of happened.

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Local group fosters cultural Judaism


 Sarah Gentry says she didn’t intend to raise her two children to be Jewish. It just kind of happened.

The Mount Airy social worker grew up as a Catholic. Her moth- er is Jewish and Gentry’s husband was raised as a Quaker. That mixed bag of traditions coupled with an ambivalence about organized religion meant Gentry never felt spiritually at home.

But then she stumbled upon Jewish Children’s Folkshul & Adult Community, a Chestnut Hill-based group for whom the Almighty is optional. “I loved that they embraced quirky religious families,” said Gentry, who joined the group nearly 15 years ago and enrolled her two children in its school.

That’s how Gentry, along with her family, came to sit proudly at Germantown Friends Meeting earlier this month on Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish High Holy Days which end tonight with Yom Kippur, as her son Miller Gentry-Sharp, now 17, delivered a presentation about the group that had given her children their Jewish identity. And Beth Margolis-Rupp, director of Folkshul, which means the people’s congregation in Yiddish, hopes that more families find this kind of community through the group’s eclectic approach to Judaism. Jewish Children’s Folkshul & Adult Community is a secular humanist Jewish organization that aims to transmit values of social justice and human responsibility while cultivating a strong Jewish identity.

 A connection to God is not required, said Margolis-Rupp, who lives in Chestnut Hill. The more than 75-year-old group offers weekly Sunday School at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy for youngsters in pre-K to 12th grade. Students learn Jewish history, values, traditions and holidays. Nearly 50 students are enrolled in the school, and 70 people are members of the organization, traveling from the five-county region and South Jersey to attend programs. For adults, Folkshul hosts film screenings, speaker series, local outings, board-game events, exercises classes, and study groups. The community celebrates holidays, including Passover and Rosh Hashanah. Its Yom Kippur observance was 3 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, at Germantown Friends Meeting and will be available virtually. A celebration of the harvest holiday Sukkot is planned for 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 19, at Fort Washington State Park.

Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish life while foregoing appeals for divine intervention, instead putting “faith in human reason and human power as the best vehicles for improving the world,” according to the Society for Humanistic Judaism. About 1.5 million of the nation’s 5.8 million adults who identify as Jewish say they are Jews with no religion, according to “Jewish Americans in 2020,” a study released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center. Those respondents say they are atheist, agnostic or have no religion, but consider themselves Jewish by culture, ethnicity or family background.

In the Philadelphia region, about 30 percent of area’s 308,700 Jewish adults identify as ethnically or culturally Jewish, while 66 perent say they are Jewish by religion, according to “Community Portrait: A 2019 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia,” which was commissione by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

All are welcome at Folkshul, which has 50 members and represents families that may be “culturally Jewish, agnostic, atheist, spiritual, self-identified Jewish, Jew~ish, Jew-curious, in an interfaith family, LGBTQ, leaving Judaism, returning to Judaism” and more.

The group started as a Sunday School over 75 years ago for families affiliated with the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish fraternal organization many of whose members supported Socialist politics,
Margolis-Rupp said. Similar schools established throughout the city became a way for Jews to “hold onto their Judaism without a synagogue,” she continued.
Richard Frankel of Chestnut Hill grew up in a Jewish household but drifted away from the faith as he got older. He realized that what meant the most to him about Judaism was not the religion, but its values, history, and commitment to social justice. For Frankel and his family, Folkshul proved a perfect match.
“We wanted something where our children could learn to devel op a Jewish identity but that wasn’t kind of God-focused or as ritualistic as other places,” said Frankel, a law professor at Drexel University who describes himself as “more on the atheist side of things.”
At Folkshul, Katie Forest, the community’s life cycle officiant, helps families such as Frankel’s craft personalized events such as weddings, baby-naming ceremonies and funerals. Forest also oversees the community’s B’Mitzvah program, a coming-of-age ritual for 13 year-olds. Students and their families select a topic connected to Jewish life, study it for a year and then make a presentation to the community about what they’ve learned. Students considered topics including the Holocaust, Folkshul’s history and Jewish holiday songs. They can also study a portion of the Torah  for their project, but in a way that's different from traditional Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Decades ago, Leah Siemiarowski Wright was a Folkshul student. She is now the group’s programming director. “Folkshul instilled in me a sense of tradition and a way to continue what my foremothers had done, but in my own way,” said Wright, of Havertown. For Miller-Sharp, Folkshul has been the key to his Jewish identity. “If it weren’t for them, I probably wouldn’t have any sort of regular Jewish culture and ideas,” he said. Miller-Sharp is now a teaching assistant at the Sunday School, which was forced to go virtual during the pandemic. Folkshul leaders created a series of regular online offerings, mailings and outdoor events to keep members engaged through the quarantine. Participation had stalled, but membership is now increasing. Margolis-Rupp is hopeful that an end to the pandemic will continue to boost attendance. “We are small because we are unknown,” Margolis-Rupp said, “but we are in the right place at the right time – and doing the right things.”



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