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Little Shul, From Chopping Block to Cultural Spotlight

April 11, 2013 By:
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An exterior view of the row house shul

A small South Philadelphia shul that was nearly demolished by the city was selected to be one of the sites of an upcoming festival that stages cutting-edge art and music installations at historic places.

Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel, a three-story, storefront shul on South 4th Street founded by immigrants in 1909, was selected as one of nine sites hosting the 2013 Hidden City Festival. Sponsored by the nonprofit Hidden City Philadelphia (festival.hiddencityphila.org), the May 23-June 30 festival will feature installations, performances, talks and tours in what the organizers called “unusual sites.”

The Orthodox synagogue will feature performances of the music of John Zorn, an avant-garde jazz artist who draws heavily on Jewish themes. (Zorn won’t be performing, but has granted permission for other musicians to play his work.) The synagogue will also have an active knitting studio, a Sunday morning speaker series, be open for tours and conduct Saturday morning services.

On the festival website, organizers described the shul's origins this way: “With Jewish life in South Philly swelling, the members of Orthodox congregation Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel converted this storefront into their shul in 1909. In the century since, as Jewish South Philly grew, then shrank, then grew again, this tiny synagogue has persisted, almost unchanged, as one of the last pre-WWI row house shuls of its kind.”

The synagogue is one of the last remaining Jewish institution in the once bustling Jewish neighborhood of South Philadelphia. In 2011, the Stiffel Senior Center officially closed and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has since sold the building. The area has seen a steadily declining Jewish population since World War II with most of the remaining Jews well into their 80s, though some sections below South Street – particularly Queen Village and Bella Vista — have seen an increase in younger residents over the past decade.

In 2007, Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel was officially condemned by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections and was in danger of being demolished.

“The back wall had collapsed,” said Morris Levin, a board member and father of two small children, who began attending services at the shul several years ago and has put his efforts toward revitalizing it. The few remaining members were able to raise just enough money to repair the wall and make sure the synagogue was structurally sound.

Levin said he’s trying to raise $50,000 for the next round of renovations. Currently, he noted, the synagogue has eight dues-paying members (that’s not a typo) including a few in their 30s and 40s. Services are led by members.

“I think the site has a future as a multipurpose community space,” said Levin. “What is really interesting is having an interest as an open access space to the public to experience this pre-World War I synagogue. It’s  really an extraordinary Jewish space.”

A year ago, Levin hosted an art exhibit at the shul. He said he was familiar with Hidden City, which last staged a festival in Philadelphia in 2009, and thought the shul would make a good site. He submitted an application in the spring of 2012 and, after much back and forth, got the final word this week that the application was accepted.

“It’s kind of a big deal,” he said. “It’s a pretty special festival that is going to get a lot of visibility.”

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