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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

“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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.