The Jewish Club Goes to Philadelphia

by

06/01/2024

Neighborhood: Brighton Beach, Philadelphia

It was 1985 and the “Jewish Club” was a social club that seemingly popped up from nowhere at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. 

One day, we were told this club existed and that a woman named Akiva  would be coming to the school every few weeks to run the club’s meetings. 

Akiva wasn’t a teacher, and this club was not officially connected to the high school, so this was a bit weird, but it seemed innocuous.

Basically, once every few weeks Jewish kids in the school would spend one period doing stuff together. It wasn’t necessarily strictly connected to religion — it was a social club — but when holidays came around Akiva would organize activities or put together little projects that somehow related to the holiday.

Then one day in the spring she told us that the club was organizing a trip to Philadelphia, and we were all welcome to join. She was vague on the details, but she made it sound like we would be going to Philadelphia for a weekend trip with shared hotel rooms and such. It didn’t seem amazing, but it sounded cool nonetheless.

We were juniors in high school, boys and girls were mixing and there were hormones aplenty. So why not get out of Brooklyn for a weekend? 

Lots of us signed up for the trip, and a few weeks later we were off to Philadelphia. I’m a bit fuzzy on how we got there, but I believe we met up at Penn Station in Manhattan and then headed out to Philadelphia. There was the usual young adult social bullshit on the train ride with the added dimension of everyone having their Sony Walkmans plugged in so that we could tune out if we wanted. Orange headphones all in place.

When we arrived in Philadelphia, it was dusk, and the city didn’t look like anything amazing because we weren’t anywhere amazing. We were in the parking lot of a hotel that could have been pretty much anywhere. We got our room assignments and headed into the hotel.

The rooms were dumpy, but adequate. While walking through the hallways, I got to see some of the kids from other schools who showed up for this trip. Some of them looked like us — normal American teens — but others seemed like young Orthodox kids with the boys in white shirts and black pants and the girls in long, uncomfortable looking dresses and skirts. They were just teenagers. But they seemed like teenagers already well on their way to squeezing out a large Orthodox family in Borough Park. 

Anyway, after getting settled in my room with whoever my roommate was, some guy came around to let us all know we needed to come down to the dining hall. So off I went.

Ran into some classmates in the hallway and we all compared notes. Rooms kind of sucked and there were more Orthodox kids than we had expected but … food! So, we all walked down to the dining room area.

When we showed up, the room was filled with folding chairs and there were no signs of food other than light snacks. We meandered around and found familiar faces. There was a slight buzz and then — suddenly — all the doors to the dining room were locked. Not only were the doors closed and locked, but they were all guarded by some fairly large and strong looking Orthodox guys with their arms folded. What the fuck was happening?

Just about the time that the doors closed, someone showed up on stage and told us all to sit down. He had a few more muscle-bound Orthodox lunks hanging out around him.

We all sat down and listened to this guy. And it basically boiled down to this: we were going to be going to special Jewish “classes” and lectures during this weekend and after that was all done there would be a very short trip to Philadelphia to do touristy things. We all turned to look to each other trying to understand what was happening, but then the guy used a word that sounded like “Sheraton” and a few of us understood what was happening.

Basically, a shabbaton is a religious retreat held on the weekend designed to reinforce and educate Jews about their heritage. Superficially, that sounds cool if you are religious and believe a weekend of Bible (aka: Torah) studying was a fun thing to do. But pretty much none of the kids from my high school  were religious in any way. We were all secular Jews who respected our heritage, but that was enough. So, this whole shabbaton nonsense was utter bullshit. We had been duped into going to some crazy religious retreat when all we wanted to do was see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and to eat a Philly Cheesesteak.

At some point, they let us stand up to get some snacks, but we weren’t allowed to leave the dining room. I saw Valerie — who was the cute new girl in the school — and started flirting with her in the only way I knew. I asked her to pretend to kick me in the leg in hopes that somehow me being injured would convince one of those muscle-bound Orthodox lunks to let us go back to our rooms.

“What? You want me to kick you in the leg?” she said.

“Yes!” I said and then looked to two of her friends standing near her who both started to understand what I was driving at. “Yeah,” said one, “He wants you to pretend to kick him so we can get out of here.”

She shrugged and then kicked me hard in the right leg. This wasn’t a fake kick.

“Ow!” I said, “Why did you do that?” I asked as I hopped a few steps back. 

“Well, you said I should kick you?” she responded. 

“Yeah, I said you should fake a kick,” I said while rubbing my right leg, “Not actually kick me!”

I looked up towards the doors, and the muscle-bound Orthodox lunks had started to open them up. Someone on a loudspeaker said we could head back to our rooms. So, we all headed back to our rooms with more questions than answers.

A group of us gathered at a classmate’s room and talked things over while listening to someone’s mix tape. We agreed that this was all too weird: Akiva had been told we were going on some fun trip to Philadelphia, but now it seemed like we were sequestered into some oddball hotel outside of Philadelphia where we were going to be lectured on the finer points of Judaism whether we liked it or not.

“This is fucked up. But it doesn’t seem like we can get out of this anytime soon so might as well make the best of it,” one of my classmates said as he reached into his bag and pulled out a joint.

I’d seen and smelled joints before — mainly ones my sister’s abusive, pot smoking husband smoked — but had never have been offered one myself. I was little apprehensive, but when it got passed to me I inhaled and was feeling fine. I passed the joint over to Valerie who looked at it, winced and then took a puff. 

“Nice hole,” I said to her looking at the rip in the knee of her jeans. 

“Thanks,” she said. 

And when I next looked up my other classmates said they were going across the hall to someone else’s room to hang out. Valerie and I were alone.

We started to flirt. And Valerie was really cute. She was into fashion and dabbled in making her own things: hair wraps, shirts and even skirts. As I sat there on the edge of the bed, I noticed she was dressed pretty basic—white shirt and jeans and some cool earrings. We smoked the joint and at some point I grabbed her right hand with my left hand, put my right hand on her right knee and we started to kiss and make out.

It wasn’t getting too hot and heavy, but eventually my hand started to move across her back, and I could feel her bra strap — and see her chest heaving — just as our classmates burst into the room. 

“Get rid of that!” one of them said as they grabbed the joint out of my hand and ran to the bathroom. “What happened?” I asked, “Someone smelled the smoke and ratted on us.” 

And as he said that a few muscle-bound Orthodox lunks followed by the guy who had been speaking to us from the stage barged into the room.

“What were you doing here?!?” he said to nobody in particular. Valerie and I looked at each other and then the guy spoke in Hebrew to one of the muscle-bound Orthodox lunks who took Valerie away and left the rest of us guys to deal with him. 

“You’re all gone tomorrow!” He said, “But you need to call your parents right now to tell them why you are going home.” And with that we were all dragged to an office in the building.

They sat us down and we were forced to call our parents and tell them we were being kicked off of the trip because we had been caught smoking marijuana. 

It was fairly brutal because it was already about 10:30 pm at night. There was no subtlety or tact to the way the guy was dealing with this. Everyone else called their parents and left the room after making the call.

I was the last one left and I pleaded with these overbearing assholes, explaining that my parents were elderly Holocaust survivors, so was there anyway I could call anyone else. The guy refused, and I had no choice but to call and wake my father up and say, “Hi dad. I’m coming home from the trip because I was smoking marijuana.” After I said that the guy in charge got on the phone shouting something to my father about how I was a bad kid and he was teaching me a lesson. He hung up the phone, and I headed back to my room.

The next morning, we all packed up our stuff and got ready to leave. While we were now shunned by these Orthodox shabbaton assholes, they did allow us to have breakfast in the hotel dining room. It was there where we learned the extent of the gossip surrounding our expulsion from this weirdo religious trip. Some of the Orthodox Jewish girls, who were eating breakfast next to our table, started to talk passive-aggressively about what had happened right in front of us. 

“I heard they found a pile of beer cans outside their window and when they got in the room, they also found cocaine,” one girl said eating her eggs and side glancing towards us. Other people would just walk back and point at us and whisper.

“What is this bullshit?” I said, “We smoked one joint and now we had beer and cocaine too?”

 “I don’t know Jack,” said one classmate, “but the cool thing is we get to leave this bullshit, right?” 

And with that we finished up our breakfast and started to make our way out.

“Hey! Where is Valerie?” I asked as we walked down the hallway. “I guess they let her stay,” one classmate said to me shrugging.

I looked around and saw one of the muscle-bound Orthodox lunks that had busted us the night before and asked him about Valerie. “I think she’s upstairs,” he said. “Well, can I say goodbye to her before I leave?” I asked. He looked to another guy and shrugged and he said, “Sure you can. Just come back downstairs.”

I ran upstairs and looked around. There were about 3 or 4 conference rooms filled with people, so I poked around each of them. And heck, I knew she liked to wear a cool looking hair wrap. She wasn’t going to be too hard to find.

Soon I saw her sitting near the back of one of the rooms, got the attention of whoever was running the class/lecture or whatever you want to call it, who let her stand up to say goodbye to me. She got up, walked over to me and we hugged. 

As I looked over her shoulder, I noticed one big word in huge, white chalk letters on the only blackboard in the room: “INTERMARRIAGE.”

We finished hugging, I looked at the blackboard and at the lecturer, closed the door, ran down the stairs and hopped into the van. And, with the rest of my classmates, we headed home to Brooklyn.

***

Jack Szwergold is a skilled web developer who has worked for Artforum and the Guggenheim Museum. He founded the Onion’s website in 1996 and currently works for the New School.

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§ 3 Responses to “The Jewish Club Goes to Philadelphia”

  • A fantastic vignette. But I hope this is a chapter in something larger. But what would that larger thing be? I would gladly hear more about the narrator and Valerie. But I don’t imagine that is such an important relationship even if it went beyond this weekend. Meanwhile, I am not so much interested in who these weightlifting orthodox Jews guarding the doors were, as I am in what they meant. Beyond the weirdness of the moment, which you capture, what do you make of it now?

    More immediately, what happened when the guy got home to the parents who are “elderly holocaust survivors”? What did they make of it?

  • Hey Thomas! Thanks for enjoying the piece!

    Very good observations and questions. While on social media this piece was hyped as somewhat in line with “Fast Times at Ridgemont Hight” I feel it is more in line with the John Hughes universe; more “Pretty in Pink” or “Breakfast Club” than anything else.

    As for Valerie? Sadly, nothing came out of the weekend more than what the piece already expresses. She was a child of an Orthodox Jewish family who chose to send her to public school for 3-4 years of high school. This is very common in NYC’s Jewish community; kind of the the Pennsylvania Dutch and “rumspringa” but far more casual. Kids grow up in Hebrew schools until they are sent to secular schools for Junior High School or High School. The next stop for her after High School was arranged marriage and homemaking a

  • Dammit! Submitted the comment before I could finish! Let me pick up where I was cut off!

    •••

    The next stop for her after High School was arranged marriage and homemaking and essentially falling off the face of the secular Earth. Last I knew/heard she was living on Ocean Parkway and Avenue X (just a bit north of Lincoln High School) was immediately married and pregnant. Never heard or seen from again.

    As for my parents, they were more disappointed than shocked. They were sad during the phone call, but not violently angry on my return. They were calm and sad; they asked me if it was true. I said it was… And with a heavy sigh, life went on!

    As for the muscle bound Orthodox guys and the “Jewish Club” that was basically a cult indoctrination. When we got back to Lincoln High School, we told faculty advisors about the trip and how it was a con job and the “Jewish Club” — and Akiva the leader of our branch — was kicked off out of school.

    As for the Orthodox guys, they were just goons for an Orthodox effort to “make sure” us secular Jews were made to be “good” (aka: Orthodox) Jews. The guy who ran the clubs in various NYC schools was busted for molesting students, embezzling and other run-of-the mill cult stuff.

    FWIW, growing up in Brighton Beach in the 1970s/1980s meant we were regularly told what “good” Jews were by Chabbad and others like them. But back-in-the-day, we didn’t just politely refuse these religious zealot advances; we shouted and cursed out Chabbad folks and even threw cans and bottles at them. I mean, we were kids at the time so we could get away with that. But the larger message was who were these jerks telling us what a “good” Jew was? Eff off! Leave us alone! We were, and still are, proud secular Jews.

    Anyway, hope this epilogue explains it a bit more.

§ Leave a Reply

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