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Religious Restoration: Better Known as a Miracle in the Making

August 31, 2006 By:
Sally Friedman, JE Feature
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Cindy Wanerman of Lower Gwynedd, chair of the synagogue restoration committee at Eastern State Prison Historic Site
Down a narrow alley, past crumbling masonry walls in Cell Block 7, the doors to Eastern State Penitentiary's prison synagogue were open on a recent afternoon. Scores of visitors stepped inside to glimpse a remarkable sight: the remnants of a once-active sanctuary for the Jewish inmates.

That sanctuary, which functioned as a place of worship until the 1960s, is now in a state of near ruin, but the pedimented Torah ark, the long benches flanking the room, and the slanted reader's table remain relatively unscathed. There is a campaign under way to raise $360,000 for much-needed restoration efforts, and to prepare the space for public interpretive tours.

The penitentiary itself -- the world's first devoted to the private contemplation of sins -- was constructed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania between 1822 and 1836; it closed in 1971. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and opened as a museum in 1994.

The occasion for opening the synagogue to visitors was the Aug. 1 birthday of the late Alfred W. Fleisher, the indefatigable champion of Jewish prisoners at Eastern State, and the man who had seen to the establishment of the small prison synagogue back in mid-1920s.

Fleisher's legacy as philanthropist, patron of the arts and social reformer was celebrated on a steamy summer afternoon by some of his descendants. Also present were those spearheading a significant restoration project of the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue, led by Cindy Wanerman of Lower Gwynedd, chair of the synagogue restoration committee of the board of directors of Eastern State Prison Historic Site.

Wanerman, an active area stockbroker, spoke of her learning of the existence of the synagogue on a site map. "It was incredibly decayed, but it was still here, and I found that extremely moving. An orphaned synagogue should not be allowed to go to ruin," declared Wanerman, who volunteered to lead the effort to work on its restoration.

She would later learn of Laura Mass, a master's degree candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who was studying the history of the synagogue as a thesis subject. Mass' work provided a giant leap forward in the effort to learn its background.

"What struck me most while researching the synagogue was the history of volunteerism from the Jewish community on behalf of Jewish inmates," said Mass. "I was overwhelmed by the generosity of community members who didn't turn their backs on fellow Jews because they had committed crimes."

Sally Elk, executive director of the Penitentiary Historic Site, echoed that sentiment: "People are surprised that there even were Jewish inmates here, and the wonderful thing is that the Jewish community did not forget or ignore their plight. There was a real effort to bring them solace, and to keep their holidays and traditions alive."

Most prominent among the prime movers of that effort were Fleisher, William Portner and Joseph Paull.

Fleisher, a prominent real estate developer, was elected president of the board of trustees of Eastern State Penitentiary, and served from 1924 to 1928. An ardent prison reformer who took a deep interest in Jewish inmates, he was also known to help their families in their struggles.

Portner, a lawyer and tireless volunteer and donor, attended every Jewish service held at the penitentiary between 1923 and 1940.

Paull, known for his physical prowess as a strongman, initially entertained inmates with his feats, but later became a supportive volunteer through 1960, even providing meat from his kosher butcher shop for Jewish inmates and starting a post-release mentoring program.

For Suzanne Fleisher Roberts of Philadelphia and Howard Fleisher of Elkins Park -- Alfred Fleisher's son and daughter -- the event resonated emotionally.

Harold Fleisher, 90, had been brought to the synagogue in recent times, and was deeply moved by the visit. "My father needed to touch the lives of Jewish convicts, and to let them know that he was available to them at any time for any reason," he said. "He even managed to get them kosher food for the eight days of Passover. It was remarkable."

Suzanne Roberts spoke of her memories of her father, who passed away when she was just 7 years old.

"He died on Christmas Day, and every Christmas, I felt that I was talking to my father, asking him, 'Have I done anything to please you?' " said Roberts, a philanthropist and social activist who hosts the Comcast Cable TV show, "Seeking Solutions With Suzanne."

"All my life," she acknowledged, "I've tried to keep and live my father's legacy."

Ralph Roberts, Suzanne's husband, spoke of that legacy, one which he suggested produced children imbued with their father's humanitarian ideals and commitment to Jewish values of service to those in need.

Selma Savitz of Merion, a member of the Restoration Committee with her husband, Samuel, reflected on the significance of the committee's work: "We have all seen too many synagogues destroyed. So the idea of restoration becomes incredibly important."

Another advocate is Rabbi Martin Rubenstein of Upper Darby, who had once led services in the prison synagogue. Rubenstein, who was present at the Aug. 1 event, recalled that the religious area was the only place on prison grounds where no guards were stationed -- at least for the duration of services.

"It was quite an experience to do this pastoral work," said Rubenstein, who recalls walking through the prison courtyard and crossing paths with murderers, and of once being detained in a prison lock-down for hours.

"But it was a rare privilege to be there," said the rabbi. "My goal was to treat these men not as prisoners but as human beings. As Jews, they deserved no less." 

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