The leader of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel examines the history of the Philadelphia Jewish community from the days of William Penn to the present, which he'll discuss at an upcoming free lecture.
When I first moved to Philadelphia 14 years ago, one of the first things that struck me was the fact that native Philadelphians seemed to know the names of the streets all along North Broad, where every movie house stood and which neighborhood was Jewish or Irish or African-American.
As an outsider, the level of knowledge of the city of Philadelphia was incredible. I didn’t even know where Strawberry Mansion was, let alone Connie Mack Stadium or the old location of Adath Jeshurun on North Broad.
The picture just wasn’t coming into focus quickly enough, so I decided to start asking questions like: “Where did you grow up? Which high school did you go to? Where were the doctor’s offices? The food stores? The places to hang out?”
It didn’t take much to get them talking. If you ask Philadelphians about their old neighborhoods, be ready for a flood of information.
That’s why, several months ago, I, along with Joan Myerson Shrager, with whom I have developed over 60 illustrated PowerPoint lectures during the last three years for Adult Education at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, decided to develop a presentation on the history of the Philadelphia Jewish community from the days of William Penn to the present. It is a fascinating, important story.
Between 1920 and 1960, the vast majority of Philadelphia’s Jews actually lived in the city, a very different residential pattern than we find in today’s suburban world. Moreover, Jews in Philadelphia lived in actual Jewish neighborhoods — real communities organically tied together by family, business, recreation, education and faith.
Neighborhoods had borders as well. This street, this block, marked the end of the Jewish area. Then there was another ethnic enclave, and on the other side of that area, yet another Jewish neighborhood.
Philadelphia Jewish history has been spatially complex from its beginnings early in the 18th century. Jews settled both north and south of Market Street. The development of a special processing center for “new Americans” on a wharf on Washington Street served to concentrate immigrant settlement in South Philadelphia’s growing “Jewish Quarter.” Others, however, settled in the area of Marshall and Brown above Market Street.
That community began moving north up Fifth and Broad Street. Philadelphia’s uptown, the settlement of German Jews, was primarily in the area of Temple University. In contrast, the Eastern European Jews began to spread out like a fan, from South Philadelphia to West Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion, Germantown, West Oak Lane, Logan, Olney and ultimately Oxford Circle and the Northeast.
Before the great migration of African-Americans to Philadelphia around World War I, it is possible that more Jews than African Americans lived in the City of Brotherly Love.
Although there were multiple non-contiguous Jewish neighborhoods in Philadelphia, from 1920 to 1960, the total Jewish community was still largely tied together by family and friendship networks. Schools like Central High School also brought people together, as did the traumatic events of the 1930s and 1940s. It was an era of neighborhoods, of belonging, of place.
We no longer have Jewish neighborhoods. Philadelphia is a region, not a polity, for its Jewish population. Fragmentation has replaced Jewish communal cohesiveness. It’s a real challenge to hold things together today. Most challenging of all is how to convey to the rising generation how things were and how powerful an experience it was to grow up as a Jew in Philadelphia in the decades leading up to and including the middle of the 20th century.
Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, a historian of the American Jewish experience and a prolific author and lecturer. Sussman and Myerson Shrager will present “When Logan Was Jewish,” a free illustrated lecture open to the entire community, at Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park on Friday, Aug. 15, at 8 p.m.