This story is part of Made in Philly, a series about young residents shaping local communities.
Jewish communities often revolve around the synagogue: for prayers, life-cycle events, and study. But South Philadelphia has few synagogues, even as more Jews move back to the neighborhood.
Hadas “Dasi” Fruchter resolved to help meet that need.
Last month, in a former Vespa scooter shop on East Passyunk Avenue, the 29-year-old rabbanit opened the doors of a Modern Orthodox synagogue that she named the South Philadelphia Shtiebel (sh-TEE-bull) — Yiddish for a small, homey house of worship.
On a recent Saturday night, the sounds of drums and guitars filtered into the street during a two-hour kumzits musical gathering, as Fruchter led about 20 congregants singing and jamming by candlelight.
“Come on in,” she called to passersby peering through windows and the open door.
Six joined the circle. One couple later offered to donate an old set of Jewish encyclopedias — and promised they’d be back for services.
"I think we’re providing a home, a spiritual home,” Fruchter said on a recent weekday in the synagogue’s main room. While no one else was around, she had set up all the chairs and the mechitza partition, which separates men and women during services, so that the room looked like it would during prayers.
Fruchter grew up in a Washington suburb, and her family “always invited random people” for Shabbat, reaching out to everyone regardless of their faith. This taught her, she said, that serving the Jewish people “actually means serving everybody."
After college graduation, she encountered Rabba Sara Hurwitz, president of the first Orthodox seminary in the United States to ordain women, and found in her the inspiration to study for ordination while getting a dual-degree master’s. Rabbinics run in her family: Her grandfather served as a rabbi around the country, and she still uses a copy of his Reverend’s Handbook.
After ordination in 2016, Fruchter served as an assistant spiritual leader at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Md. In January 2018, she was contacted by an organization offering to fund new Orthodox synagogues, and jumped at the opportunity to lead a fledgling congregation. (Modern Orthodox Judaism is loosely defined as a movement, within the larger Orthodox denomination, that aims to hold onto Jewish tradition and law while engaging with the outside world and modern thought.)
She said she sensed that Philly “is becoming a really good destination for young Modern Orthodox people and empty nesters.”
And she has family roots in the area: Her grandmother went to Temple University.
Over the course of many preliminary meetings in the city and suburbs, she learned of a group of Orthodox Jews in South Philadelphia looking for a more established religious life.
That life existed there in the last century, when South Philadelphia was home to more than 150 synagogues, as well as Jewish-run businesses and schools, according to former Inquirer reporter Murray Dubin’s history of South Philadelphia. But the neighborhood’s Jewish population declined as Jews moved north and into the suburbs, and today, while it is rich in the remnants of closed synagogues and Jewish schools, it has just a few active congregations — by some counts fewer than a dozen.
It took Fruchter a few months to ready Shtiebel. “We pulled up the floor tiles, we tried to get the motorcycle smell out," she said. The building also had to be rezoned for religious use.
The Shtiebel held its first Friday night services on July 19, with about 70 people attending. The following week, about 30 came.
“It’s a community that we’re literally building around ourselves as we go,” said Abrielle Fuerst, 27, a martial arts instructor, who has been in on the planning since the beginning. “People stop me off the street to tell me how much this matters to them.”
Jon Stone, another neighborhood resident, helped transform the building into a synagogue by removing old flooring and patching drywall.
Yael Respes, 53, a teacher from Queen Village, said she started coming to the Shtiebel even though it’s a long walk. Many Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath.
“It’s bringing ruach," she said, using the Hebrew word for “spirit.” “It’s really exciting to see what [Fruchter’s] doing.”
Fruchter knows her role as an Orthodox clergywoman — she doesn’t use the title rabbi — is not universally accepted within Orthodox Judaism.
She said her chosen title, rabbanit, helps people accept her, since it “actually maintains a little bit of historical significance for women as scholars.” The term can also refer to a rabbi’s wife, so some feel more comfortable using it, she said.
Fruchter also handles the Shtiebel’s business matters; like any start-up, it needs funding, management, and outreach. For now, she’s the only staff member, helped by volunteers.
Her job, she said, is a balancing act between meeting “the operational needs of the space, and at the same time, [being] completely present in pastoring to people who need you.”
What’s in the Shtiebel’s future?
Most immediately, this fall’s High Holy Days. Fruchter is still figuring out who will lead services and read from the Torah. Services are mainly male-led, as in other Orthodox synagogues, although part of the Friday night service is sung communally.
Down the road, space might be a concern; Fruchter said everyone barely fit during the first Friday night service. “This lease is three years, so … we’ll see if it’s the right thing for us long-term.”
While much has been planned, there are still some surprises.
While unlocking the Shtiebel one recent day, Fruchter noticed that two large planters had appeared by the door. On an entrance table inside was a letter from Jon Stone explaining that the planters held horseradish, to be used as bitter herbs for Passover.
Just another way this new synagogue is growing.