I glanced around the room at the other students in the class, searching for body language that mirrored my own — a hand raised in the air, or perhaps a look of confusion or even concern on their faces. It was September 2002, my first semester of a two-year master's program in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania.
Our professor had just informed us that he needed to reschedule the next week's class and offered an alternative date. Was that date OK with everyone, he wanted to know?
I had checked my calendar — Yom Kippur. But as I saw the other students nodding approval and packing their bags to leave, it was clear that I was the only one for whom this date presented a conflict.
Having grown up in New York, gone to a Jewish summer camp, traveled to Israel and worked at a Jewish museum, I felt for the first time what it was like to be divorced from the familiarity of a common Jewish identity.
Several weeks later, I sat in the offices of Eastern State Penitentiary in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, interviewing for a work-study job. The executive director, Sally Elk, handed me a map of this historic site and told me about the type of work I would be doing. As she spoke, I couldn't take my eyes off the map; written across one of the cellblocks was the word "synagogue."
I racked my brain — was there possibly an alternative meaning to this word that I was unaware of? Finally, I simply pointed to the map and looked up inquisitively.
Yes, she informed me, inside of this crumbling 19th-century prison were the remains of a Jewish place of worship. Would I like to see it?
Entering the synagogue for the first time, I was struck by the romance of its ruinous state. Years of neglect and water infiltration had resulted in severe deterioration of the space. Wood elements were splintered and rotted. Plaster was detaching from the walls. Almost all of the ceiling had collapsed. Yet evidence of the room's past use stood out in defiance of this ruin.
There was the entrance door, with ghost impressions of where two Stars of David and a mezuzah once hung. There were benches where worshippers once sat. There was the Torah ark. I stood there in the quiet and damp as history seemed to stand still and come alive at the same time.
The Topic of Her Thesis
I felt awed, incredulous and curious: Why was this synagogue built? How was it accomplished? And for whom? Mostly, I felt an immediate connection to this space, which was all at once entirely new and completely familiar. The topic for my degree's thesis requirement was suddenly abundantly clear.
For about a year, researching the history of the synagogue involved hours spent poring over various historic documents, including brittle old issues of the Jewish Exponent. What unfolded was an extraordinarily moving story of a small Jewish inmate population — individuals who constructed the synagogue and who were consistently looked after and provided for by members of the local Jewish community.
The summer after graduating in 2004, I was employed by Eastern State, and worked with a team of interns to carefully remove and sift through all of the debris in the synagogue. Beneath the layers of accumulated rubble was evidence of the synagogue's past activities and former glory — a couple of Chanukah song sheets, fragments of decorative ceiling plaster with rich blue-and-gold finishes and other items.
In the field of historic preservation, it's not typical to research a site as a graduate student and then see that site restored five years later.
In many ways, the Eastern State synagogue was a perfect storm that enabled this outcome — an evocative site, a riveting back story, a tireless fundraising committee, and descendants of the outside volunteers devoted to honoring the memory of their relatives' kindness and dedication to the prison's Jewish inmates.
A year ago, Milner + Carr Conservation began the restoration of the synagogue. Every effort was made to painstakingly conserve as much original material as possible. What could not be salvaged was carefully reproduced from historic photographs.
Today, the synagogue is open for viewing. A nearby exhibit tells the history of the synagogue and of Jewish life at Eastern State (www.easternstate.org).
I'll never forget how I felt when I first walked into the remains of the Eastern State synagogue. It was a feeling of shared heritage and history that transcended time and the fortified walls of the prison. Researching the history, I developed a deep sense of pride in the willingness of the Jewish community to look beyond these inmate's crimes and see fellow Jews in need of support.
Standing in the synagogue today, I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. And I feel fortunate to have played a role in a collaborative effort to honor this site and share it with others.
Laura Mass is an architectural conservator at Milner + Carr Conservation.