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“A bunch of different kinds of people have been coming through,” says Tusman, “not just people coming to the festival but also a group of people who come out of the woodwork and say, ‘I knew about this synagogue’ or ‘my ancestors were part of it and my interest is piqued.’ And then there are the people in the neighborhood who say, ‘I always thought that was closed’ or ‘I didn’t know that was here.’”
Shivtei Yeshuron, deep in South Philadelphia, was founded in 1876, around the time Jews began coming in droves, in boats docked on the Delaware River in that part of town. The number of Jews who settled in South Philly is a matter of conjecture, but the total neighborhood population was 336,000 by 1910 and Russian-born Jews were the largest ethnic group, according to Murray Dubin’s 1996 book “South Philadelphia.” By 1930, Dubin writes, “Jews seemed to have synagogues on every corner” of the east side of South Philadelphia, by the river.
Shivtei Yeshuron was already well established by then, in the storefront row house it has owned since 1914. The congregation had a benevolent society, a women’s auxiliary and a full roster of services. Congregant-led services today happen on holidays and one Saturday a month, along with occasional Sunday minyan breakfasts and special events.
During the last century, row-house synagogues were small power centers in the neighborhood, controlled by immigrant families who passed the mantle to their sons. As in other North American urban centers, the children of those immigrants grew up, served in World War II and then moved away to other sections of town or to the growing suburbs.
Shivtei Yeshuron survived, probably, because a few people with roots there — people who no longer live in the neighborhood — persisted. “It’s a struggle,” says Shivtei Yeshuron’s vice president, Steve Sisman, 66; his younger brother, Richard, is president. Sisman grew up at the shul and became a bar mitzvah there. By the time his brother, 10 years younger, reached age 13, the family had moved away. The brothers came back later in life to support the shul financially and take part in its services and board.
“My brother has been contributing lots of his own personal funds to keep it open, and I’ve thrown in some myself,” Steve Sisman says. So have board members — particularly at one point, when the city condemned a rear portion of the building and a wall fell when a crew came to fix the spot.
Almost everyone who comes to Shivtei Yeshuron lives in some other part of town: South Philadelphia is home today to an estimated 250 Jews, and large and small downtown synagogues are only minutes away. Italian Catholics continue to live in South Philadelphia and support their parish churches, and newer residents over the last decades are African Americans and now Mexicans and Asians.