A Buddhist temple embedded in a synagogue tells the story of South Philly immigration
Cambodian Buddhist temples have burrowed into the remains of the neighborhood's Christian and Jewish past.
The only thing you can say with certainty about Philadelphia neighborhoods is that there will be churn. Sometimes it comes from depopulation and disinvestment, other times from growth and gentrification. The markers of these shifts are best seen in religious buildings as they are passed from one group to another.
The intersection of Sixth and Ritner in South Philadelphia offers a vivid snapshot of the ever-changing Mifflin Square neighborhood. The land south of Moyamensing Avenue was only lightly settled at the turn of the 20th century but quickly started filling up with Germans and Italians. Jews pushed south from Queen Village after World War I. Beginning in the mid-'70s, with the end of the Vietnam War, Southeast Asians — Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian — began arriving. Joined by African Americans and Latinos, they have thoroughly regenerated the neighborhood.
It's the Cambodians who really make their presence known at this intersection. Cambodian Buddhists acquired the somber St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in 2004 — exactly a century after it opened — and converted it into a golden, Technicolor compound. The Preah Buddah Rangsey Temple underwent such exponential growth that, three years later, it acquired the Adath Shalom synagogue across the street, where the aging congregation could no longer sustain the building. In a neighborhood that had once been dotted with dozens of rowhouse "shuls," Adath Shalom was one of the last holdouts.
The fusion of Jewish and Cambodian imagery is what makes this otherwise modest, tawny brick building so compelling. Rather than completely redesign the interior, the Cambodian Buddhists simply burrowed into the existing shell.
Two tablets representing the Ten Commandments still preside over the main entrance, but they are capped with a plaster mokut, the ceremonial headdress worn throughout Southeast Asia. Inside, you can still see the unusual zodiac mural on the sanctuary ceiling, inscribed with Hebrew characters. But images of Buddha now share the space. Because the Cambodians had no need for the Orthodox Jewish women's gallery on the second floor, it was transformed into a gallery for Buddhist funeral urns.
It is not clear when Adath Shalom opened, or even whether it was a purpose-built synagogue. The brick on the Ritner Street facade differs significantly from the side walls. Rakhmiel Peltz, director of Drexel University's Judaic studies program, believes the synagogue may have been created by combining two rowhouses. Founded by Lithuanian Jews, who represent just a small subgroup of all Philadelphia Jews, the synagogue was incorporated in 1922, as Beth Samuel Nusach Ashkenazi. After merging with another congregation in 1961, it was renamed Adath Shalom and adopted the practices of Conservative Judaism. As the small shuls disappeared, it became the largest synagogue in the neighborhood.
During the three years that Adath Shalom and Preah Buddah Rangsey Temple shared the intersection, the Cambodian Buddhists dramatically altered the Lutheran church. The original dark granite blocks remain on Sixth Street, but the Ritner Street side is now layered in shades of saffron. An elaborate ornamental fence, featuring traditional mandala wheels, forms a generous courtyard. Griffins, lions, and warriors stand sentry at the gates.
The procession through the courtyard leads to a small covered porch, where worshippers remove their shoes before entering the temple proper. The large building contains several worship areas, as well as rooms for monks, who are sometimes seen walking around the neighborhood.
How long they will remain a presence is unclear. The Khmer Buddhist Humanitarian Association, which runs the temple, is building a large compound in South Jersey to serve the region. In February, it sold Adath Shalom to a development company whose name combines Cambodian and Philadelphia references: Penh Investment Penn LLC. We can only hope this deeply resonant building will be allowed to evolve along with the continually changing neighborhood.