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South Philly's 'Little Shul' continues Jewish tradition

Its name is a mighty mouthful - Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel - so friends of the century-old rowhouse synagogue, the last of its kind in South Philadelphia, call it simply the "Little Shul."

"The Little Shul" was built in 1895 and consecrated in 1909.
"The Little Shul" was built in 1895 and consecrated in 1909.Read moreAKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer

Its name is a mighty mouthful - Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel - so friends of the century-old rowhouse synagogue, the last of its kind in South Philadelphia, call it simply the "Little Shul."

Constructed in 1895, consecrated as a house of worship in 1909, condemned and repaired in 2008, the time-worn building on South Fourth near Emily Street is all that remains of about 150 rowhouse shuls that dotted the city's eastern wards south of Washington Avenue in a busy quadrant of Jewish immigrant life.

In a neighborhood more recently transformed by Hispanic and Southeast Asian immigration, a handful of shul devotees this year began using shabbat services on the first Saturday of the month, and a Sunday speakers series to revitalize the shul as a haven for Jewish culture.

The effort is headed by congregation president Rich Sisman, 56, who grew up half a block from the shul, moved to Northeast Philadelphia in 1973, and lives in Elkins Park.

His goal: Rekindle the spirituality he knew as a boy amid the flaking paint, stamped-tin walls, and bronze memorial plaques from the 19th century.

So connected is Sisman's family to the shul that his mother, before her death in 2003, wanted her coffin made from one of its oak pews. Sisman talked her out of it.

"It is not unusual for someone to walk in and start crying when they spot a relative's plaque" commemorating a death, he said. "How do you let something like that go away?"

Sisman, an information-technology specialist, credits Councilman Jim Kenney, who grew up in the neighborhood, with introducing him to then-State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo. Using community development money, Fumo arranged a $25,000 grant to the shul for renovations. "If it wasn't for that grant," said Sisman, "we wouldn't have a shul today."

Another major contribution came from architect Joel Spivak.

In an interview, Spivak, 75, who lives in Center City, recalled reading a community newspaper article that said the synagogue was slated for demolition because its back wall was collapsing. He went to have a look.

"I hadn't been in a synagogue for 35 years," he said. "But when I went in, it was so beautiful. I said, 'This place should not become a memory as so many others had.' "

Spivak made drawings for reconstruction of the wall, served as general contractor, didn't take a fee, and lent the project a five-figure sum. At the service last Saturday, he expressed satisfaction at the largest turnout of the year - 11 men and one woman.

Wearing skullcaps, prayer shawls, and casual clothes, the mostly middle-aged men sat near the bimah prayer platform. A separate area is reserved for women.

Orthodox Jews require a minyan - a quorum of 10 Jewish men - for Torah readings and kaddish, the mourner's prayer.

'You feel decades of history'

Places such as the Little Shul "stay alive because somebody saves them. It doesn't just happen," said Morris Levin, 37, a member of its board.

He grew up in Lower Merion Township, attended Jewish day school, and lives near Seventh and Christian Streets with his wife and two young daughters.

After World War II, he said, Jewish communities in the United States tended to build large, suburban-campus synagogues - "lovely places," but with "a certain formality and distance."

The Little Shul, which seats fewer than 85, is the antithesis.

"I love how small it is, tangible, visceral, accessible," said Levin, who, along with 86-year-old Nate Pepper, led the May service. "You feel decades of history when you walk in."

Situated between a two-story rowhouse with a new redbrick facade and another with gray siding, the shul is the only three-story building on its side of the block. A half-moon window above its double doors focused sunlight onto Michael Carasik as he strode to the bimah last week.

Carasik, an adjunct assistant professor of biblical Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania, read expertly from the vowelless scroll.

"I have no Philadelphia connection . . . from my youth," Carasik, who grew up in Chicago, said after the service. "What I get out of attending synagogue is belonging to a group. I like davening in a small space. You can know everyone in the room. It's not anonymous."

Sisman said the shul required about $10,000 a year for oil heat, water, electricity, and insurance. About 100 members, including some who never attend, or who show up only for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, pay $36 annual dues. Donations from former Philadelphians come from everywhere.

Magnet for immigrants

Abundant, mostly affordable housing and a village-like atmosphere have made South Philadelphia a magnet for immigrant groups. When the Jewish immigrants began moving out, some shuls were converted back to houses. One, near Sixth and Ritner Streets, became part of a Buddhist temple.

In Echoes From a Ghost Minyan, a 1998 film, local documentarian Joseph Van Blunk reported that on Feb. 22, 1882, the S.S. Illinois docked at the foot of Federal Street on the Delaware River, and among the passengers were 225 European Jewish refugees, most of whom settled nearby. Four decades later, according to the film, South Philadelphia was home to 100,000 Jewish immigrants.

"From 1890 to 1924, Jewish and Italian immigrants were piling in," said Harry Boonin, author of The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia.

After the Russian pogroms in 1903 and 1905, he said, Jews came in waves, producing a building boom and proliferation of rowhouse conversions because Orthodox Jews needed shuls that were within walking distance from their homes.

"In those years," he said, "if you didn't get to shul an hour before services started, you couldn't find a seat."

Many of the new arrivals were tailors, said Boonin, and some prospered when Philadelphia became a center for manufacturing military uniforms for World War I. Upwardly mobile, they moved to Strawberry Mansion and other less-congested areas.

The United States restricted immigration in 1924. In 1929 came the Great Depression, followed by World War II, which curtailed most new arrivals, said Boonin.

After 1946, he said, many Jewish immigrants and their descendants moved to Wynnefield, Logan, Mount Airy, Oak Lane, Northeast Philadelphia, and the suburbs of Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

Kenney, first elected to Council in 1992, has championed the causes of diverse immigrant groups. Reminiscing recently about the since-vanished Lipton's Bakery a few doors from the Little Shul, where Kenney got bagels as a child, he said preserving spaces such as the Little Shul was important for the city's collective narrative.

"To appreciate people's contributions to America, you have to know their story," he said.

"It's important for Jews, but it's also important for non-Jews. I need that Mexican immigrant and Cambodian immigrant to understand that story, too. If you let those symbols fade, and be torn down, you lose part of your history."