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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On the immediate blocks around Shivtei Yeshuron, says Tusman, “it’s a community going through quite a large immigrant flux right now,” particularly from Cambodia and Laos. “It’s interesting to contrast them with the Jewish neighborhood of the early 1900s. Now, they are building their own houses of worship, so it’s interesting to see the same process.”

The white walls and ceiling of Shivtei Yeshuron sport their original old-fashioned tin facades stamped with designs. Rows of small pews line both sides. An ark sits next to the far wall, illuminated by a glass Eternal Light that says “history.” Some prayer books on shelves date to the 1800s.

Up a set of narrow stairs was a second-floor social hall, and removable sections of floor allowed women to see the bimah directly below at services. (Today, women are divided from men by small transparent panels fastened to the benches in front of them in the sanctuary.) The third floor, now looking like a neglected stepchild, was once a kitchen where women would prepare meals, then a room for the rabbi.

During the Hidden City festival, a fabric artist brought in modern versions of sweatshop machinery on the second floor and visitors made pieces of scarves. The festival also screened a film and held a concert series, all Jewish-themed.

Morris Levin, in his 30s, may be the youngest Shivtei Yeshuron member. He lives with his wife and children in South Philadelphia, and now serves on the board. “I knew it was still open so I went down there for a minyan on a Shabbos morning and I was taken by the building,” he says. His reaction that day was “very visceral in a soulful way.”

Levin says that the board already has a list of people from Hidden City who want to help keep the place alive, not all of them Jewish. “You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate a hole-in-the-wall storefront synagogue,” he says. “That’s just something special.”

Howard Shapiro is theater critic at WHYY in Philadelphia, Broadway critic for The Classical Network and a travel writer.


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