The Latest from BZBI

Building Community with Rachel Hollander Sirner

March 11, 2019

Our thriving congregation is built on the involvement of dedicated community members and volunteers, who are both the reason we exist and the reason we strive to maintain this community for many years to come. This year, March is Congregant Appreciation Month. We will take time each week to profile a BZBI member and their story.

This week, we want to introduce Rachel Hollander Sirner, one of the volunteers behind our January Young Professional Dinner and the upcoming Philly Israel Shabbat Dinner, hosted by BZBI, NextGen, the Jewish Graduate Student Network, and Israel Bonds (where her husband Ari happens to work). Rachel joined BZBI in 2015 after coming to Shabbat services. In June of last year, BZBI hosted her family’s Shabbat Dinner before her wedding. “BZBI really welcomed my family,” she says, and she’s been working to help others feel just as at home.

With a Masters in Jewish Education from Penn and a position at Penn Hillel as Associate Executive Director, Rachel knows a thing or two about Jewish community. For Rachel, being Jewish is as much about “community and bringing people together” as it is about prayer and ritual.

Since she was a kid at Camp Ramah, Rachel has loved the ritual of the Friday night dinner.  “Shabbat Dinner is something so many people can connect over,” she told us, “It’s always a special time.” She brought that understanding of different ways to engage with ritual life to her work at Penn Hillel. “Everything is about relationships. It’s the same for college students as it is for young professionals.”

Rachel wanted to help young Jewish Philadelphians engage with BZBI like she does with Penn Hillel. She wondered what BZBI could do that was unique. Because of BZBI’s access to ritual and physical resources that other organizations may not have, Kabbalat Shabbat services and Friday Night Dinners are a natural fit to bring feelings of connectedness and spirituality together.

The Young Professional Shabbat Dinner followed a slightly different model than most of our Friday Night Dinners. It was built on a network of connections, hosted by twelve different people, including Rachel, who personally reached out to others, while not being exclusively invite-only. The goal was to creating a welcoming, warm atmosphere, a feeling of being at home in our synagogue that would continue after. The list of attendees included avid BZBI community volunteers, new members seeking a way to get to know their community, and people completely unaffiliated with our synagogue. Part of Rachel’s follow-up engagement plan is “that everyone who attended will receive a personal invite to another person’s Shabbat dinner table.”

Rachel hopes to extend the reach of these sorts of dinners past the label of “Young Professional.” While many synagogue activities and events are targeted at specific age ranges, Shabbat dinner has a universal appeal. One of the most beautiful things she sees in synagogue life is its intergenerational quality. Coming together at a Friday Night dinner table can bridge those generational gaps and create a widespread sense of engagement in Jewish communal life. She hopes the meals she helps to plan will create an opportunity for anyone who wants to feel more engaged to build a real sense of community together.

BZBI is proud to be able to give people like Rachel the physical and ritual space in which to build a sense of community and belonging. Contributing to our Annual Campaign helps ensure we can provide these valuable resources to the Center City Jewish Community for many years to come!