PHILADELPHIA — Amid a row of uniform brown townhouses in Blue Bell, one stands out from the rest. A white mezuzah fastened to the doorpost breaks up the sea of dark wood. Inside, Jewish-oriented books, many of them religious, fill two white shelves in the rented space. Jewish art adorns the walls, and a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, is prominently displayed.

On this particular afternoon, 12 women, some laughing, others eating, are gathered around a table discussing a lecture they heard that morning. Their ages range from 16 to the late 30s. And while many have known each other for just a few days, they share jokes and confidences as if they were old friends.

These are just some of the women who took part in Bais Chana, an intensive Jewish learning program for women recently held in Pennsylvania for the first time.

The travelling program is divided into three seminars. Each lasts between 10 days and three weeks and is geared toward a different group.

"Journeys," for example, targets teenagers, while "Live and Learn" is geared to the interests of single women. The final seminar, called "Getaway," focuses on the concerns of married women.

Bais Chana was created in 1971 by Rabbi Manis Friedman and Minnesota head of Lubavitch Rabbi Moshe Feller and his wife, Mindy, to educate women with limited or no background in Jewish studies. This marks the first year that the program is travelling outside of Minnesota.

Classes include Jewish history, the mystical meanings of Hebrew letters and lessons on making challah from scratch.

Most classes, however, are text-based, explained Hinda Leah Scharfstein, executive director of Bais Chana Women's International, which coordinates the program, because "people don't feel challenged if they don't have text in front of them."

While the program's main purpose is to give women an intensive educational experience, other goals are subtly built into the curriculum.

For instance the teen program offers participants — which in the recent program here totaled 35 — a "philosophical foundation" and some problem-solving tools to confront life's challenges, said Scharfstein.

"I feel that the teen program is the most critical work [we're] doing today," because teenage girls are more likely to have negative self-images or suffer from depression, she said.

"What we're trying to do is help the girls discover their own inner strength as opposed to being a victim of outside negative messages."

Bais Chana also helps women "draw on [their] education, grow spiritually and become more aware of oneself as a Jewish woman," according to Scharfstein.

"Nobody leaves untouched. For some, that means incorporating Jewish observances in their lives. For others, it may mean greater participation in the community," she said. "But everyone leaves with a greater consciousness."

For 25-year-old Sara Bridge of Richmond, Va., coming to Bais Chana marked her first vacation since college. "I knew I wanted to do something religiously educational. I asked my rabbi, and he recommended it," said Bridge, who lived in a rented home for the duration of her courses.

She did not regret her decision.

"It's very challenging. I thought it would be very basic, but it's very challenging," Bridge said. "For me, it's just been a lot of new concepts I had not dealt with."

Helen Ganz, from Zurich, Switzerland agreed. "I have advanced on personal issues and [learned] things I wasn't looking for," she said.

Twenty-one-year-old Nechama Dina Cohen of Brooklyn, N.Y., said the camaraderie among the women is what makes the program special.

"What's incredible is the way everyone is coming together with similar purposes, and we learn from each other. Just the atmosphere is conducive to growth," Cohen said.

"Each program is geared to issues that age group is facing," making it more meaningful to the women participating, said Cohen who had attended the teen program several years ago and returned this summer to attend sessions relevant to her life today.

For most of its students, Bais Chana is much more than just books and baking. It's about meeting Jewish women from all kinds of cultural backgrounds and practices, and, therefore, its principal lesson is one of understanding.

"A Jew is a Jew no matter what they look like outside," said Kensington, N.Y. resident Malkie Shenkman, 17, who attended the "Live and Learn" class. "Everyone is just as holy."

And that, confirmed Scharfstein, is really what it is all about — ahavat yisrael, loving your fellow Jew.

(Reprinted by permission of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent)