A Prison Shul, Lost and Found

Before and After: The synagogue, left, in the late 1990s, and right, following the restoration.
Before and After: The synagogue, left, in the late 1990s, and right, following the restoration.

By Devra Ferst

Published April 07, 2009, issue of April 17, 2009.
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Under layers of crumbled mortar and plaster, eroding walls and a skylight enlarged from a caved roof, the small synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary was nearly unrecognizable in the 1990s, 20 years after the prison closed. But recent efforts to restore the synagogue, which is believed to be the first prison shul in the country, have opened the doors of this small house of worship to the public and illuminated the history of the strong Jewish community of ESP when the facility was in operation, from 1829 to 1970.

Located in Philadelphia, ESP is perhaps one of the nation’s most famed penitentiaries, known for housing Al Capone and for its pinwheel architectural design that is now used in some 300 prisons worldwide.

Perhaps lesser known, until recently, is ESP’s connection to Jewish life. Jewish chaplains started their work in the prison in 1845, and the first High Holy Day services were celebrated in 1913. In 1924, with the help of local Jewish community members, the synagogue was constructed.

That same year, Jewish inmates decided they wanted to celebrate Sukkot. “They placed branches over the synagogue’s skylight and had their meals in their makeshift sukkah,” said Sean Kelly, ESP’s program director.

Thanks to a $280,000 restoration campaign, launched in 2004, the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue has been restored to its appearance in 1959. The April 4 unveiling of the synagogue also marks the opening of an exhibit that includes life-size photos of the synagogue and inmates, artifacts from the synagogue and a video interview with Rabbi Martin Rubenstein, the last Jewish chaplain to work at ESP.

Eastern State Penitentiary, 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia; through Nov. 30; $12.00, adults; $10.00, seniors; $8.00, students and children. For tickets and more information, call (215) 236-3300 or visit www.easternstate.org.

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