Bringing Young, Diverse Jews Together — Over Kugel
Simone Weichselbaum and Yossi Rosenberg decided it was time to shake things up. The best friends wanted to hold events for Jews who were single. But they also wanted to entice people of diverse backgrounds, and to feature memorable speakers.
So last summer, they decided to form their own group. They called it Kugel.
“I think the Jewish community needs to embrace everybody,” Weichselbaum said. “There are Jews who are black, Latino, LGBTQ, and Jews who have different levels of observance and want to embrace their Jewish identity in a space with no judging. That’s what we’re about.”
Weichselbaum, 37, is of Jamaican descent on her mother’s side, and German-Jewish lineage on her father’s side. She had an Orthodox conversion at the age of seven. She was also temporarily thrown for a loop last April after a broken engagement.
“There was despair and sadness,” she said. “When there’s a person who you spent so much time with, you can’t believe it’s suddenly over.”
Kugel was born out of that grief and a desire to start something new. Since November, the nine events they’ve held have been successful, averaging between 30 and 50 people. One even featured a talk by a survivor of the Rwandan genocide.
Ironically, this coming Saturday’s event on New York’s Upper West Side will be the first to feature kugel. On hand will be Ari Nagel, who drew headlines in The New York Post as a Jewish sperm donor to women across the globe. He now has more than 50 children.
“I’m excited and I know there will be a lot of questions,” Nagel, 44, said by phone. “I know my story might sound strange to people. But there is no greater gift than giving someone a child and I’ve been able to give that gift to a lot of women and done it for free.”
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko will also be present to lead a discussion with Talmudic source material related to the laws related to artificial insemination.
Rosenberg, 39, head of business development for Zeno Media, said that in his time living on the Upper West Side, many Jewish events have become monotonous.
“People don’t want to see what they’ve seen before,” he said. “It’s good to be a little controversial. It’s bad to be boring. With Kugel, we want to be fun and we also want to let people be who they are. There’s something in the brain where we feel we need to label people. … It’s hard to look at people in shades of grey, but that’s what we’re working toward.”
Speakers do not use microphones on the Sabbath. The food is strictly kosher and prepared by Chef Jonathan Hartig, owner of J2Foods. He said it’s been great to work with the group and for one event he featured Ethiopian cuisine.
“One thing we learned is it’s much better to have it catered,” Rosenberg said. “Our first events weren’t. When you have good food in a chill environment, people want to check it out.”
Rosenberg, who is single, said he is like many who are going to events and hoping to meet his bashert. He said it would be a great thrill for a couple to meet at Kugel and get married.
“I’ve gone to so many events at synagogues and people’s homes, and I’ve eaten a lot and taken a lot,” he said. “This my chance to give back to the community, and I think great things will come of it.”
Weichselbaum, who lives on the Upper East Side and is a senior fellow at Manhattan Jewish Experience, said about Kugel: “I wanted something fun, with no pressure, where people who are under-represented could also have a place to go,” she said. “And it’s important to be able to laugh.”
Steve Rohinsky, 38, agrees. The nursing home operator from Long Island said he appreciated the humor of those he met when he attended a Kugel event.
“I’m an Irish Jew and somebody asked me if I want corned beef and cabbage or chulent,” Rohinsky said. ‘I said ‘kugel.’”