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Daniel Rubin: Members of Philly senior center ready to fight for its life

The tension in the basement of the Stiffel Senior Center had been slowly rising for nearly an hour when Harry Azoff was moved to speak.

The tension in the basement of the Stiffel Senior Center had been slowly rising for nearly an hour when Harry Azoff was moved to speak.

He'd sat quietly through the presentation by the woman from the board, and heard her deliver the bad news about the bottom line. The 83-year-old community center, at Marshall and Porter in South Philadelphia, must close by July 31 because it's hemorrhaging money.

He listened as the questions came. Is this a done deal? Where are the politicians? One woman in the back asked if there was any way to save "this League of Nations."

Committees should be formed, said Raechel Hammer, the executive from the main office. One group should think about how to raise money - fast. Another should address an orderly transition to other centers.

That was when Azoff stood up. Trim, tan, and silver-haired, the 87-year-old widower spent his career as a bench jeweler on Sansom Street, making platinum rings, earrings, and necklaces by hand. He spoke precisely.

"Emotionally," he said, "can you see our gentile friends, our Asian population dispersing and going up to the Klein Center" in the Far Northeast?

No, came the voices from the crowd.

Admittedly, the Stiffel Center is old, and the boiler sometimes fails, Azoff said. But even the times when there was no heat in winter, people came.

"We sat with our coats on, and we ate . . . because this center is a special place," he said, his voice rising. "Under all circumstances, this center must be kept open."

The clapping drowned him out for a second, and the crowd - maybe 60 elderly people sitting at tables - nodded and talked excitedly.

Azoff had one more thing to say. "We can't just sit here and say how much we love this place. We've got to work."

When the meeting broke up, several people surrounded Azoff. He still had the floor. He said he was willing to pay to save the center. He pledged $1,000.

"I'm ready," he said. "I'll do it right now. One thousand dollars in your life is zero for being able to come here every day and enjoy yourself.

"People say to me, 'If the center closed, what will you do?' Nothing. You'll sit home and watch TV, and you'll die."

Hope was hard to find at Thursday's meeting. The numbers are stacked against the Stiffel Center. Last year it lost $200,000. Same amount as the year before. A new roof and boiler would cost $400,000. No angels have stepped forward.

As one observer said from the back of the room, "Even the donors to this place are dead."

Once 100,000 Jews from Eastern Europe filled the rowhouses of South Philadelphia. Stiffel counts 450 clients today. Only 150 are Jewish, just 50 of them from the neighborhood.

Azoff travels from Front and Fitzwater five days a week. He found the senior center three or four years ago.

"I came to play pool," he said. "I just got so enamored of the place that I decided this is my life. This is my first home. My second home is where I sleep."

At that second home he worked on his hobbies: stained glass, painting, and classical harmonica. "But I'm getting too old to stain and cut glass. I could play harmonica, but my lungs can't do it anymore."

I asked Azoff what is important to get across about Stiffel.

"The building is old, and we're old," he replied. "We have an affinity toward each other. It's the friendliest place in the world. There is a great feeling of camaraderie."

When he was done speaking, a woman approached - tall and big-boned with a graying ponytail. She asked if she could say something.

Her name is Estelle Goldstein, and she said she finds the Stiffel Center a life support, a place of respect and consideration.

She wondered if I'd seen the piece on the news about Barney, a dog from South Philly who needed ear surgery that his elderly owner couldn't afford. The community stepped forward to pay the bill.

When I answered yes, she gave me a look of utter sadness.

"People raised money for a dog, and look at the lives here. They helped Barney the dog. What about Minnie, your grandmother?"