Bowling was never a favorite pastime, Marnie Markowitz says, watching with amusement as a group of friends groan after a teammate misses a chance at a spare. ChutzBowl players Evan Markowitz and his wife, Marnie, break for dinner during a league night at North Bowl in Northern Liberties.
Photo by Avi Steinhardt
Still, she came to this trendy Northern Liberties alley several years ago to check out the Jewish bowling league her sister had emailed her about, figuring it would be a good way to socialize.
"Just being around other Jewish people, no matter what 'version' of Jewish you are, you come together to have fun," Markowitz says. In her case, it turned out to be much more: "The first night, I met my future husband, which was not my intention!"
She wasn't the only league member bowled over by love. In its fifth year, league organizers tally four marriages, not to mention several business partnerships, dozens of friendships and an alley record high score.
"Our goal was to create a community, and this is what a community in 2012 looks like," says Gedaliah Lowenstein, a 34-year-old Chabad rabbi who set the "ChutzBowl" league in motion. "Bowling just works as a community-building tool. People sit next to each other for two- and-a-half hours. It's relaxed and it's a way for people to connect."
ChutzBowl members Michael Albenberg and his wife, Lindsey, (left) watch the action as teammate Megan Gordon (standing, right) speaks with league organizer Rabbi Gedaliah Lowenstein.
Photo by Avi Steinhardt
Like Markowitz, Lowenstein never had a particular penchant for bowling. He just happened to meet the Israeli family who was opening North Bowl as he moved into the funky, up-and-coming neighborhood just north of I-676 to found the Jewish Center of Northern Liberties in 2005. It didn't hurt that he lived right around the corner, and the owners were active in the Jewish community.
North Bowl hosts other leagues, too -- web developers, bankers, black young professionals -- but owner Oron Daskal, 35, says he's got a soft spot for the ChutzBowlers. In addition to the league, he says, they've partnered with several groups to host Purim parties and other Jewish events.
"I love Jews, you know, don't you love Jews?" Daskal says. "These are guys I socialize with."
Depending on the season, anywhere from six to eight teams, each with four players, sign up. It's co-ed, though men generally outnumber women. They meet every Wednesday for 12 consecutive weeks in the winter and again in the fall. An $18 weekly fee covers three games, shoe rentals, a donation to Lowenstein's center and a contribution to the pot that eventually goes to the winning team.
Photo by Avi Steinhardt
Lowenstein says he's been impressed to see a fair number of players continue with the league year after year. Getting young adults to devote time -- even just for three months -- is a perennial challenge, he says.
"Our grandparents' era where everyone belonged to a club, that doesn't exist. Those days are a century ago," Lowenstein says.
For those who can't commit to a season, Lowenstein and volunteer "commissioner" Dan Stamm maintain a list of substitutes. It's proven to be a good way for new players to check it out, Lowenstein says.
Former league participants stay involved that way, too, like Markowitz, who dropped out after one season on the first, and only, all-female team.
"I realized I was not the best bowler and gave up," Markowitz says, shrugging.
But she didn't need bowling talent to impress Evan Markowitz.
"After we went on our first date, I knew. I was sold," Marnie Markowitz says.
In a nod to their bowling love story, they even had engagement photos taken at the alley. One of the other bowlers who met his wife at the league arranged to propose to her there.
Though Marnie Markowitz no longer bowls on a regular basis, her husband never misses a week. More than the sport itself, Evan Markowitz says, "it's the one day a week when I'm guaranteed time with my best friends."
"And I get to get away from my wife," the 30-year-old business owner adds, grinning as she shoves him.
Several hard-core bowlers compete in the league. One couple practices every week on their Wii. Darren Hersch, 35, of Northern Liberties, has yet to bowl above 202, "but that was a magical night" when he hit his high score, he says, as a friend snickers behind him.
"We all try to watch the rules," adds Scott Meyer, 29, a real estate appraiser from Center City who used to bowl in a college league. "But there's drinking involved."
One player even set a record high score at the alley -- 299 out of the possible 300 points. Prentiss Smith, a 31-year-old finance portfolio manager from Queen Village, was on the fourth frame of consecutive strikes last spring when everyone began gathering around to watch, Meyer remembers.
"I was happy," Smith says, modestly. No victory dance, though, he says.
As for bowling alongside a bearded rabbi -- that's just an added layer of intrigue, the players say. Onlookers or fill-in bowlers sometimes do a double take. "They're like, 'Chabad -- bowling?' " says Jon Friedman, 30, a real estate attorney from Cherry Hill, N.J.
Lowenstein says that as far as he knows, none of the league members identify as Orthodox. Some consider themselves Conservative or Reform; many have no affiliation. One woman who no longer participates asked him to officiate at her wedding simply because he was the only rabbi she knew, Lowenstein says.
For the bowlers who don't attend synagogue or participate in other Jewish groups, he says, this might be all the connection to Jewish life that they need right now. If they're inspired to explore more religion, he says, they have an access point.
"There's a rabbi there most weeks, and you can get invited to his house for Shabbas, and for some people that's their Judaism," Lowenstein says. "They don't go to shul on Yom Kippur, but they bowl with other Jews."
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 Gedaliah Lowenstein’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
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.”