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In the hip Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia, about 80 young professionals see a rabbi every Wednesday night. But these Jews are not attending a typical Torah class; they’re bowling.
Years after political scientist Robert D. Putnam coined the term “bowling alone” as a critique on the collapse of traditional community-building institutions, the Chutz Bowl League is firmly entrenched in its 11th season of play, attracting hundreds of young Jewish men and women to the swanky North Bowl bowling alley on Second Street. Some come for the laid back atmosphere, some for the sport, and perhaps by Rabbi GedaliahLowenstein’s design when the idea popped in his head after reading Putnam’s book, to meet their future spouses.
According to the rabbi, who directs Chabad-Lubavitch of Northern Liberties with his wife Shevy Lowenstein, not only is a community being strengthened by the weekly Torah-inspired get-togethers, it’s actually being made from the ground up. Four couples that have met at Chutz Bowl functions since its inception in 2006 have gotten married.
Though Lowenstein is a constant fixture on Wednesday nights, it is Dan Stamm – nicknamed “The Commissioner” – who does all the legwork to build the teams season after season and collect the dues. Stamm, a reporter for local NBC television affiliate Channel 10 whose father’s business was located in Northern Liberties, said the area has since been revitalized. But before the bowling alley opened, there wasn’t much to do at night besides go to one of many local bars.
Owner Oron Daskal says that’s exactly why he opened North Bowl.
“The [bars] were all the same – loud music and heavy drinking,” explains the 35-year-old. “There wasn’t anywhere to converse and socialize properly.”
When Lowenstein saw that the bowling alley, which looks more like a lounge than the traditional pin palaces of yesteryear, was opening just around the corner from his house at the time, he approached Daskal with the idea to start a Jewish bowling league.
Jewish young professionals from all over the city flock to Northern Liberties to bowl and wind up members of a growing community.
Daskal was thrilled.
“It’s what we want,” says Daskal, “to be part of the Jewish community.”
Though he does enjoy bowling, the rabbi doesn’t play in the league; he’s simply there to make himself available for anyone who wants to talk or ask questions about their heritage.
“They go to bowl,” shares Lowenstein, “and they encounter a rabbi and meet other Jews.”
For many, the weekly encounters are their only Jewish activity. But just by attending, they’re guaranteed to take part in the traditional command to give charity: A portion of all dues are donated to the Chabad House.
“They have fun and do a good deed at the same time,” surmises Stamm, 30.
Because most of the players don’t attend synagogue, Lowenstein brings the Jewish holidays to them. On Chanukah, everyone took a break to gather together and light individual menorahs. For Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish “New Year for Trees,” Lowenstein brought fruits and taught everyone about the proper blessing that covers consumption of tree-borne fruit.
Rabbi Gedaliah Lowenstein
And because Purim falls out this year on a Wednesday night, Philadelphia's Jewish Heritage Program's Young Professional Network will bring its annual Purim Party – with about 300 people expected to attend – to North Bowl next week.
An avid bowler since he was a child, Stamm took bowling as a college course when he attended the University of Maryland; he then played in the county league as a senior. When he discovered Chutz Bowl in its second season, he was elated.
He observes that while thousands of students are involved with their college Chabad Houses, once they graduate and join the work force, many lose that connection. Chutz Bowl, he says, allows its members to “continue their Chabad connection.”
Besides the matchmaking, the journalist notes that the league has helped foster many friendships and “business relationships too many to count.” For his part, he’s trying to come up with a name for his team. In the past, he and his teammates have chosen a name related to their favorite movie but so far this season they are stomped.
“We are team No. 5 right now,” states Stamm. “We need to come up with something.”