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Tale of an Immigrant Shul Captures the Mood of an Era

March 13, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, JE Feature
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Harry D. Boonin

The date was Dec. 15, 1898. Congregation Kesher Israel at 412 Lombard St. was decked out in American and "Jewish colors," according to an article that appeared in the Jewish Exponent at the time.

Early American Zionist leaders Dr. Schepschel Schaffer and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who had both attended the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, just weeks earlier, had been invited by synagogue leaders to speak on the timely topic of creating a Jewish homeland.

Those gathered to hear their passionate speeches on the support needed from abroad for the Zionist movement were mostly Russian Jewish immigrants who had come to America to escape persecution and the pogroms their relatives were still facing in the world they'd left behind.

The immigrants listened intently to the ideas conveyed by the doctor and the rabbi. Besides coming to the United States in search of freedom, maybe there were other options, the two men suggested -- perhaps the time had come for Jewish people to have their own state.

This is just one anecdote that local author Harry D. Boonin sketches out in his second book, The Life and Times of Congregation Kesher Israel, which was published in February.

Boonin's first book was 1999's The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia: A History and Guide, 1881-1930, in which he described this city's major immigrant neighborhood, along with the Yiddish newspapers, synagogues, friendship societies, and other noteworthy organizations and places that made up the community during that time period. It was during the research and writing of his first work that Boonin decided that the story of Kesher Israel needed to be told. After seven years of work, his concept has come to fruition.

Of all the synagogues in the local area with rich histories to explore -- and of all those he's pointed out to visitors who've signed up for his walking tours of Jewish Philadelphia -- why this particular one?

"Kesher Israel jumped out at me," said Boonin, 71, a Warrington resident. He explained that the central location of the synagogue placed the congregation at the forefront of Jewish life in the city and, for many years, it was the largest synagogue in the heart of the Jewish quarter, surrounded by Jewish homes, businesses and pushcart markets.

"It was probably the most interesting synagogue in Philadelphia and probably in the United States in the immigrant era," he noted. "Philadelphia was an early and strong Zionist center," added Boonin, "especially among Orthodox leaders."

What stood out the most for the author was that the beginnings of American Zionism in this area were deeply rooted in the synagogue.

The shul's officers brought in well-known speakers to address congregants and local Jewish community members in its meeting hall throughout the late 1890s, where "young idealists mixed with penniless immigrants" in the days "of sparkling idealism."

As Boonin portrayed it, such gatherings were like a "Zionist congress in miniature."

"[Kesher Israel] played a big role," he continued, especially since it's one of a handful of synagogues from the era -- a witness to history, as he called it -- still standing.

But in the post-World War I era, the immigrant community that once dominated life in the Society Hill-South Philadelphia area spread out into nearby communities; North Philadelphia was to become the new epicenter of Jewish life, as synagogues popped up along Broad Street and in Strawberry Mansion.

That signaled the end of the heyday for the Center City congregations, said Boonin. Where there had been dozens of synagogues at the end of the 1800s and early 20th century, less than a half-dozen survived.

'Neighborhood Went Downhill'

"Everything changed really fast," conveyed Boonin, calling it a "miracle" that Kesher Israel's building wasn't torn down or converted into a church, which was the fate of so many other synagogues when the Jews moved out of the area.

Several photos in the book provide a "graphic demonstration of how the neighborhood went downhill," said the author.

Kesher Israel's decline began in the 1920s. By 1969, when Abe Mersky, a longtime synagogue president to whom the book is dedicated, returned to the shul, it was in near ruins. Boonin wrote that the building's once-grand facade was worn, with old bricks peeking out from the exterior; some of the stained-glass windows were missing panels, and the sanctuary "was desperately in need of repair."

But today, after considerable renovations, Kesher Israel is an active, traditional congregation that continues to hold services in its historic building.

Boonin said he hopes readers come away with "an appreciation of what their immigrant ancestors went through in becoming American citizens" and "the role Kesher Israel played in how we all got to where we are."

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