Student Film for National History Day Details Jewish Role in Mount Airy’s Integration

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Beneath its placid exterior, Mount Airy has a fiery core: a tradition of dogged social activism.

Mount Airy, a Philadelphia neighborhood about eight miles outside of Center City, is in full spring bloom.
Known for its lush profusion of trees and flowers, the Northwest Philadelphia hamlet’s hilly streets are now studded by pink trees, purple and yellow flowers, and fragrant rose bushes cascading over wooden fences. Sidewalks and cars are covered with pinkish-white magnolia leaves.
On a recent day after a rainstorm, the smoky smell of charcoal grills and wet earth lingers in the air. Even at the popular High Point Café at the Allen Lane train station, this pocket of the city seems worlds away from the frantic commerce of downtown Philadelphia. Neighbors greet each other with hugs. They sit outside at tables or on the grass, and sip iced coffee. Dogs sleep at their feet. It’s a lovely, peaceful scene.
But beneath its placid exterior, Mount Airy has a fiery core: a tradition of dogged social activism.
In Jayne Pardys’ documentary short about Mount Airy integration during the civil rights era, New York University professor Tom Sugrue said, “Mount Airy is different, in large part, because of the role of activists organizing — organizing through religious congregations, organizing through institutions like the Allens Lane Art Center, working through the public schools. So the integration doesn’t just happen naturally. It happens because people are committed to it and work to build the institutions necessary to make the ties.”
Pardys’ documentary goes on to explore the role played in the push for integration by the Germantown Jewish Centre, a congregation founded in 1936, which chose to stay in the neighborhood rather than move to the suburbs as other synagogues did during the era of “white flight.” Pardys, a junior at Abington Friends School who grew up in West Mount Airy, created the film for the school’s National History Day club.
The film has won several rounds of regional and state competitions, and Pardys will soon take it to the National History Day finals at the University of Maryland. AFS History Department Chair Margaret Guerra — who calls Pardys “a dream researcher” — said the club allows students to pursue their projects beyond the classroom and facilitates their ability to enter the competition.
Pardys knew she wanted to do her project on Mount Airy, and the more she investigated, the more excited she got.
“I didn’t know that GJC played such a big role at that time,” she said. “I was fascinated. I had my Bat Mitzvah there. I went to Hebrew day school there. I’ve been a part of that community for so long, and I never knew.”
She got help from other Mount Airy residents, like History Making Productions’ Amy Cohen, to find “talking heads” for the film, such as University of Pennsylvania law professor Wendell Pritchett. She used archival photographs and images from the Temple Urban Archives and the Germantown Historical Society, and she read Abigail Perkiss’ book Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Postwar Philadelphia.
Perkiss, who’d worked with AFS before, agreed to be in Pardys’ film. In it, she said that residents of Mount Airy watched other areas grapple with racial tensions, blockbusting and white flight, and they made a collective decision.
“They were saying, ‘We love our neighborhood. We love our old houses. We love our sidewalks. We love the Wissahickon. We love our schools, and we want to stay here and maintain the viability of our community. So we’re going to try a different strategy. Instead of meeting black buyers with hate, instead of meeting the demands of blockbusting Realtors and leaving, we’re going to try to create an integrated space.’”
Many of those residents were members of faith communities who came together to encourage residents to stay. Pardys interviewed GJC’s current rabbi, Adam Zeff, about one of his predecessors, Rabbi Elias Charry, who was instrumental.
“Rabbi Charry felt very strongly about building a just society,” Zeff said in Pardys’ film. “His idea of a just society is one in which we know our neighbors and care for our neighbors.” Zeff said Charry’s determination to stay was a rejection of the notion of community as an isolated group. “He thought instead that [we should] be exposed to and interact with people who are different from us.”
Charry and other clergy members, Zeff said, even went door to door to their congregants and said, “Stay here, don’t move. Don’t sell your house. This neighborhood is going to work as an integrated neighborhood.” Charry also encouraged Jews from other parts of the city to move to Mount Airy.
Pardys was excited to speak with GJC member Iz Kranzel, who told her that the conservative synagogue’s struggle to stay in an integrated neighborhood was “a great achievement” — and one that was nationally known.
“Iz was there with Rabbi Charry during the time, sending letters, witnessing what was happening,” said Pardys, “and it was like I was listening to live history. What I have will be documented forever, his story is going to be there, which I think is so fascinating.”
She also spoke with Suzanne Hodges, an African-American Mount Airy resident, who described GJC as “such a welcoming place” when she was growing up. It was a Jewish organization, Hodges told her, but it was inclusive of so many demographics and faiths.
Pardys reflected upon how making the film has shaped her. Though she’d like to win at nationals, she’ll be happy with the project even if she doesn’t.
“It’s cool because I walk down the streets of Mount Airy and I think, ‘I know what happened here,’” she said. “I know why my neighborhood is so diverse and why there’s a really big Jewish population.”
She’s learned about her neighborhood’s activist might, and the power of a single person to effect change.
“Rabbi Charry stood up for what he thought was right,” she said, “and if he didn’t everything would be really different.”
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