The memories flowed freely Sunday evening, as 600 congregants, staff and board members, past and present, filled the main sanctuary of Congregation Adath Jeshurun to celebrate a memorable occasion — the synagogue's 150th anniversary.
When an historic synagogue celebrates its sesquicentennial, one night to assess the past is hardly enough. And so, the gathering on May 4 was billed as the opening event to an extended celebration that will stretch into the fall.
The event marked the opening of the Rudman Gallery, dedicated to the memory of past synagogue president Stephen D. Rudman. His wife Gerry, two daughters and their families were on hand to cut the red ribbon.
The first exhibit on display in the gallery, located on the lower level of the shul, features items from the synagogue's archives and explains the history of the congregation from its founding in 1858 through the civil-rights era and on to today.
At the entrance of the exhibit is the framed first deed to the synagogue from the City of Philadelphia, bearing the original name of the congregation — Adas Jeshuron — evidence of its German-Jewish immigrant roots. The seven cases also display congregants' personal items, such as confirmation memorabilia, a graduation diploma from 1878, a wedding dress and photos of congregants who served in the armed forces during America's wars.
Bernard Dishler, co-chair of the 150th-anniversary celebrations, recalled for those gathered a cold and rainy morning earlier this year. On Feb. 4, a small group gathered outside the Moorish-style building at Seventh Street and Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue), a structure that holds a special place in the history of A.J. — it was the first building the congregation had constructed from scratch.
Though the building is now owned by New Greater Straightway Baptist Church, in the lower corner of the brickwork on the facade is an indication that a synagogue had once dwelled there — a cornerstone, bearing the Hebrew date of the building's construction: Iyar 27, 5646; on the next line, in English, is June 1, 1888.
With permission granted by the church, masons set to work to retrieve the stone, deemed an important part of the congregation's past. Those viewing the removal didn't know what they would find inside, if anything.
But as the cornerstone was released from the wall, it became apparent that synagogue members long gone had left something for their descendants. Inside was a tin box that had disintegrated over time. Several frail pieces of faded newspaper and rusty coins, among other items, were pulled out of it.
The contents are being analyzed by curators and archivists, Dishler noted, but the cornerstone itself has a new home — in Elkins Park. He explained that the stone, along with one already obtained from the shul's former location at Broad and Diamond streets, will become part of a landscaped garden in front of the current cornerstone some time during this summer.
The highlight of the evening was the premiere of "Adath Jeshurun: An Incredible Journey," a documentary film produced by Sally Mitlas Productions, which traces the shul's story through interviews with longtime congregants, many of whom are multigenerational members of A.J.
Upcoming anniversary observances will include a birthday party on June 6; a symposium on Sept. 7; a bus tour of the former locations of the congregation on Oct. 19; and a tour of the A.J. cemetery in Frankford on Oct. 26. Festivities will conclude Nov. 8 with a commemorative Shabbat-morning service, followed by a gala dinner that evening.