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South Philly Synagogue Opens Doors to Cutting-Edge Contemporary Art

January 19, 2012 By:
Mordechai Shinefield, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Aaron Birk spoke about his debut graphic novel, "The Pollinator's Corridor," at a recent cultural event. Photo by Martin Brown

"There's a feeling that this is the next Brooklyn," Saul Sudin said, gesturing to the South Philadelphia neighborhood right outside Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel.

Faced with the depressed urban scene surrounding the shul, one might be hard-pressed to share Sudin's enthusiasm. The synagogue, founded in 1876, sits deep in the neighborhood, sandwiched between row houses and across from empty lots. Police sirens often pierce the air, cutting into conversations.

Up until four months ago, Ezras Israel held Shabbat services, but the death of a key congregant put its minyan on indefinite hiatus. Still, members of the affectionately nicknamed Little Shul were hopeful that the community, and synagogue, could mount a comeback.

Inside the building on a recent Saturday evening, Sudin's prophecy did seem in the realm of possibility. That night, Sudin, a 28-year-old New Yorker, and a few dozen other young Jews had congregated to drink craft beer, eat homemade ice cream and discuss contemporary Jewish art.

The event, packaged as "Studio Aggada: New Ideas Lab," was the brainchild of Morris Levin, 35, a South Philadelphia resident. "I had always known about the shul. I knew that it was here and my mother's grandparents had lived in this area," said Levin, who lives in the Bella Vista neighborhood with his wife and 4-year-old daughter.

Committed to bringing more people into the synagogue, both for cultural events and eventually services, Levin met with synagogue president Rich Sisman and architect Joel Spivak, who's head of renovations at the shul, to brainstorm new ideas.

The first of them, a Chanukah party held last month, brought 50 to 60 people to the small sanctuary, a number that even eclipsed their yearly High Holiday crowd.

"There were little babies crying and kids screaming," said Sisman, 53, who took over the helm of the synagogue in 2005. "It was a wonderful thing. We need to get young people involved. Morris was truly a godsend. He thinks the shul is a cool historic place. For me, it's a shul from when I was a kid."

During the recent cultural event, a sheet was hung over the aron kodesh, the ark that holds the Torah, upon which Sudin projected images of contemporary Jewish art from his laptop. He and his wife, Elke Reva Sudin, 24, founded the New York collective Jewish Art Now in 2009 to showcase contemporary Jewish art.

Reva Sudin shared one of her own pieces from a collection called "Hipsters and Hassids" that showed religious Jews and young local artists interacting below an elevated subway line in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

According to Saul Sudin, postmodern art introduced something negative to art, which mocked those who might finding meaning in artistic endeavors. But in reference to the work his wife was displaying, he described it as "proud Jewish art that can look towards the future."

Another presenter that evening was Aaron Birk, who spoke about his debut graphic novel,The Pollinator's Corridor, and shared some pieces from that work.

"I'm attracted to desolate urban images," said Birk, whose novel tells the story of a senior high school class that turns abandoned areas in the Bronx into gardens for butterflies and bees. Parts of his novel have been serialized in Philadelphia's CityPaper.

Despite being set in New York, Birk says, Philadelphia has crept into his work.

"My heart is completely in Philly," Birk continued. "I started my story in New York but, when I moved here six years ago, I wanted it to be a Philly story, so I've tried to subversively make it about Philadelphia." One of the images he displayed showed the Divine Lorraine Hotel, an abandoned building on Broad and Fairmount streets.

His story about rejuvenating decaying spaces resonated with the broader renovation project at Shivtei Yeshuron.

"To be in a space that precedes our era," Levin said, addressing this point, "a space our great-grandparents may have been in -- it's bringing to life in a physical tangible way something that most of us haven't seen or engaged with."

People respond to this Jewish space, "an urban space, an old space," he said, noting it's one of the last of its kind in South Philadelphia.

Faced with the depressed urban scene surrounding the shul, one might be hard-pressed to share Sudin's enthusiasm. The synagogue, founded in 1876, sits deep in the neighborhood, sandwiched between row houses and across from empty lots. Police sirens often pierce the air, cutting into conversations.

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