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Bus Tour of North Philly Revisits Old Synagogues Area
Memories are sometimes all that remain of days -- and neighborhoods -- gone by, as the participants of a synagogue bus trip discovered firsthand last Sunday. The tour of former Jewish North Philadelphia sites gave the 45 people on board a chance to revisit the streets and structures where any number of Jews and their families once lived, worked and prayed.
The trip down memory lane was made possible by Richard Pardys, a member of Congregation Beth Ahavah at Rodeph Shalom, who organized the tour and, for a year beforehand, researched the communities of North Philadelphia.
A registered architect, Pardys provided a hand-drawn map to the synagogue sites for the afternoon tour on Nov. 4.
"I had no idea these synagogues existed," said Sherry Shamansky, a Center City resident, as she studied the guide Pardys had provided.
Though Pardys' family is originally from Logan and Strawberry Mansion, he grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and then in Bucks County, and now resides in the Fairmount section of the city. He gathered the details that filled his narration through a steady process of research, but admitted that those on the bus perhaps had additional information to provide.
"A lot of you lived on these streets," he reminded those on the journey.
The group rode a school bus into the North Marshall Street area, as well as Strawberry Mansion and Logan, as Pardys explained the history of the Jewish people who once inhabited the area.
Sites along the route did evoke memories. Some called out familiar locations along the way -- what used to be a restaurant, ice-cream shop, business or gathering spot in the neighborhood. A cheer went up from several people as the bus passed Seventh and Girard, where the Ambassador dairy restaurant, a popular venue, once catered to its Jewish clientele. But the Ambassador is long gone.
And so are the synagogues of North Philly. Of the 14 buildings on the excursion, only one -- Congregation Rodeph Shalom -- is currently used as a synagogue. Though many of the actual congregations themselves have found new homes, mostly in the nearby suburbs, the majority of the former buildings have been turned into churches.
There are still some signs that Kneses Israel Anshe S'fard was once at 984 N. Marshall St. The popular synagogue was built for $1,000 in 1909, Pardys noted, and sat at the center of the North Marshall Street business district. The congregation moved to the Northeast in the late 1960s. The building is now home to Emmanuel Full Gospel Temple, yet the synagogue's name in Hebrew remains visible on the facade.
"You'll find a lot of these are now churches," said Pardys, as the tour passed what used to be Congregation Adath Jeshurun at Seventh and Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue). Now the Greater Straightway Baptist Church, the cornerstone bears the Hebrew date of the building's construction: Iyar 27 5646; on the next line is the English: June 1, 1888.
Before its move to Old York Road in Elkins Park, Adath Jeshurun also had a home on the 2100 block of North Broad Street. A lone wall is all that stands of the former site. Perhaps a sign of the times, it's now adjacent to the parking lot of a McDonald's.
Indications that B'nai Jeshurun, which has since merged with Beth Tikvah and moved to Erdenheim, was once at 33rd and Diamond are also evident. Today the Cornerstone Baptist Church, worshippers welcomed visitors inside for a few minutes of gazing at a building that retains many Jewish elements. Large stained-glass windows on both sides of the sanctuary are memorials to deceased Jewish congregants. Jewish-star-shaped chandeliers hang from the ceiling. There's also a Star of David stained-glass window in the balcony, where Orthodox women used to sit during services.
The rabbi's chair is still on the pulpit, a menorah carved into its headrest. The Ark area has been filled in and painted over, but the etched lions guarding it linger in place above the alcove, with Hebrew letters also visible.
The trip concluded as the bus headed south on Broad Street to what was once known as Synagogue Row, where at least six shuls were built along the city's main thoroughfare as an indication that Jews had "made it" in Philadelphia, explained Pardys. Though the former location of Temple Judea (now part of Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park) was too far north to visit, the bus passed the sites of the other former synagogues that made up Synagogue Row: Beth Sholom Congregation, Congregation Mikveh Israel, Adath Jeshurun, Keneseth Israel and Rodeph Shalom, where the tour began and came to its end.