The house on the 1400 block of Catharine Street in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood is four bedrooms large, sprawling nearly 3,000 square feet across one of Philadelphia’s most coveted neighborhoods.
It seemed large enough when Rabbi Doniel Grodnitzky and his wife, Reuvena, purchased it in 2012, with three kids already in tow and plans for several more along the way. At the time, the Jewish organization that they lead, Chabad Young Philly, was rapidly expanding. It had already outgrown two commercial locations. So, the Grodnitzkys decided that year to instead run their “Chabad house” out of their personal home, allowing them to capture the familial atmosphere that characterizes the Chabad movement today.
With roots emerging in Russia more than two centuries ago, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has swelled in popularity across the world in recent decades, with more than 4,000 Chabad houses operating worldwide today. The ideology emerged as a branch of Hasidism, which itself is a subset of Orthodox Judaism known for its tight-knit communities and all-embracing religious lifestyle. The Chabad movement differentiates itself, its adherents say, by its outreach efforts, including to nonobservant Jews, to whom the Chabad movement hopes to teach about a Jewish-focused lifestyle, including through the religion’s classic texts.
For that reason, Chabad houses — centers run by husband-and-wife couples who provide space for community, teaching, and meals — have spread far and wide, with more than a half-dozen in Philadelphia, as well as international locations including Angola, Croatia, and Costa Rica. The Grodnitzkys’ Chabad house, Chabad Young Philly, caters specifically to students and young professionals.
The Grodnitzkys call their leadership of their Chabad house a calling of sorts, one that brought them back to Philadelphia a decade ago after they met at Oberlin College in Ohio. There, they both say, they grew more spiritual and “saw how important it would have been for us to have a supportive Jewish environment,” Reuvena said. Both were raised in the Philadelphia suburbs -- she in Cherry Hill, he in Abington -- and decided to return. They saw Philadelphia as the perfect place for their Chabad house.
Since then, Chabad Young Philly’s membership has swelled, with 400 to 500 people on the Grodnitzkys’ email list. Members are not required to attend the frequent meetings that they host out of their Catharine Street home — events that include small group lessons, challah bakes, Shabbat dinners, and holiday celebrations. But their house is filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of guests on some nights.
“The amazing thing that happened is that this exploded — our dining room is hosting a totally abnormal number of people,” Reuvena said. “Our dining room is in a normal Center City house, and we’re packing in 50 to 60 people in it. … On larger weeks, we’ll be putting overflow in the basement, in my kids’ playroom, and the office.”
Most recently, her husband said, during a Persian-themed Shabbat several weeks ago, their home was packed with 100 to 150 people.
So, for the last two years, the Grodnitzkys had been intensively searching for a new home for Chabad Young Philly — somewhere big enough to accommodate their growing crowds, while still in walking distance of their home, where they now raise seven kids. “We wanted space for classrooms, for meals, a commercial kitchen,” Reuvena said. “We’re talking about something that can have a big, open, multifunctional space.”
They found it earlier this year, hiding in plain sight in Center City.
In mid-August, the Grodnitzkys put 1601-1603 Lombard St. under agreement for a price of about $1.6 million, a sale that they hope to close in December. The two-story stucco and beige brick building is estimated to have been built in 1905 and was later used as the Apex Beauty College, part of a large chain of beauty schools for African American women. The business was founded by Sara Spencer Washington, an African American businesswoman who became a self-made millionaire as a result of the beauty products and hair salons she helped create.
The building at 1601-1603 Lombard is thought to be one of only a few surviving properties tied to Washington’s beauty school chain. It is currently listed as a “contributing” building in the city’s large Rittenhouse-Fitler Residential Historic District.
Yet at some point in recent history, property records show, the squat corner property faced possible extinction.
In 2016, the building was purchased for $1.065 million by CP Acquisitions 23 L.P., an entity with ties to David Blumenfeld, a developer and the president of Cross Properties, a Philadelphia-based real estate investment and development company. A year later, a zoning permit was issued for the complete demolition of the property. That same permit showed plans for a 60-foot-tall structure in its place.
According to a city spokesperson, Blumenfeld that year sought to have the building reclassified by the Philadelphia Historical Commission as “non-contributing," a move that would have made it easier for the building to be razed. The commission, however, declined Blumenfeld’s request, making his zoning permit moot. Before demolition could have begun, Blumenfeld would have also needed to obtain an additional building permit green-lighting the leveling of the property.
So, in 2018, Blumenfeld changed course: Instead of demolishing the structure, he went before the Historical Commission for permission to build a three-story rear addition, as well as a three-story rooftop addition, attached to the original facade, which would now be preserved. According to a letter signed by Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the application was approved in June 2018, provided, among other stipulations, that “the colors of the addition are compatible with the original brick color.”
According to permit records, Blumenfeld never applied for any further permits to redevelop the building. MPN Realty Inc., a Philadelphia commercial real estate agency, later circulated marketing materials advertising the building as for sale, listing it as an “approved redevelopment with plans for five condos.”
Blumenfeld did not respond to a call for comment. Joshua Nadel, a partner at MPN, said that while the building received significant interest from potential buyers, many realized that it was “a very expensive proposition to have to retain a facade and build new construction behind it.”
“I think that’s what made it untenable for a lot of buyers,” Nadel said.
Once Chabad Young Philly purchases the building later this year, the Grodnitzkys plan to redevelop the existing building, rather than build any kind of addition.
“The first floor has these gigantic steel beams and high ceilings, so we plan to create a very modern and industrial look with pendant lights and exposed beams,” said Doniel Grodnitzky. “We’re all about flex space and an open floor plan for these large communal meals.”
For now, Doniel said, he’s focused on fund-raising to make the redevelopment project work. Chabad Young Philly is supported entirely by donations — as are both the Grodnitzkys’ salaries. Doniel said the group is trying to raise $1 million for the renovation. Members can participate in all Chabad Young Philly programs for free.
“The building has an interesting history — it’s really a Philly gem,” Doniel said.
“We’re having a renaissance of Jewish life in the city. … We want this to be a really hip center for millennial Jews.”