The Last Row-House Shul in Philly

New Lease on Life for Remnant of Neighborhood's Jewish Past

By Howard Shapiro

Published July 08, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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Video: Nate Lavey

The “Little Shul,” as its supporters call it, stands in the middle of a dense street of row homes. But in a big way, it stands alone.

It is the last operating row-house shul in South Philly. During the early part of the last century, there were 155 synagogues like it in the neighborhood, dotting the narrow streets. These buildings were hives of activity on Saturday mornings, when worshippers packed into confined sanctuaries that otherwise would have been used as stores or living rooms.

Nowadays, you could walk past the Little Shul — its real name is Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel — and not even know it’s there. Except for its pillared entrance and some small lettering, it’s like almost every other place on the blocks around it — snug in a long line of two- and three-story homes older than just about anyone now alive, in a hardscrabble neighborhood where a different ethnicity moves in with each new generation.

Shivtei Yeshuron still operates because a handful of people persist in keeping it alive. A few years ago that handful — mainly families with deep roots at the shul — was its entire membership. Now there may be as many as 18 or 35 members, depending on who’s counting, and more may be coming. Shivtei Yeshuron is suddenly in the limelight, receiving more attention than it has seen in decades, and possibly in its entire history. That’s because Hidden City, a group that runs a festival highlighting unusual spaces in Philadelphia, has made it a featured place. That, in turn, has brought people into its faded but intact sanctuary.

At $36 per person for an annual membership — double chai — Shivtei Yeshuron stands to gain new blood. Whether that means active members or simply new supporters with a membership remains to be seen. But the fact is, this Orthodox Little Shul that was once a player among many players, that hosted its last bat mitzvah in 2000 and last bar mitzvah the decade before that, is now a standout. “It’s such a unique location — there’s really nothing like this storefront synagogue,” says Lee Tusman, 31, the creative director of Hidden City Philadelphia, which is supported by members, foundations and grants. In June, Hidden City ran its second festival — the first was in 2009 — that temporarily installs art in spaces people might walk or drive by, but wouldn’t necessarily enter.

Many of these places, like Shivtei Yeshuron, are venerable and still part of the city’s life, but also uncelebrated and faded. (“Faded” literally describes the cover on the table at Shivtei Yeshuron’s bimah in the middle of the 90-seat sanctuary; the velvet on a portion of the table cover is worn thin from decades of use.)


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