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Uncovering History — and Mystery — at Eastern State

May 22, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg
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The old synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary lies at the end of this narrow cell block; it's currently undergoing renovations and will open to the public. Photo by Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg

Down a narrow cellblock alley at Eastern State Penitentiary, beyond a locked gate, is a small room that's been overlooked and forgotten for nearly four decades. Though time and weather have taken their toll, there is no mistaking what the hidden space is -- a synagogue.

From the early 1920s until the beginning of the 1970s, the synagogue behind the massive stone walls at Eastern State gave Jewish prisoners a chance to maintain their religious heritage while imprisoned for the assorted crimes they committed.

Some indicators still exist to let observers know it was a holy place for Jewish inmates to come and pray. On its peeling wooden door is the eerie outline of the two Stars of David that were once mounted there, and a vertical indentation on the doorpost stands as the only reminder of a mezuzah's presence. The readers' desk sits in the middle of the room, facing the wooden ark at the front of the room; the ark now sits empty, except for some layers of dust, its Torah having disappeared long ago.

Built in 1822, Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison ever built. The structure was an architectural marvel when it opened in 1829 as the world's first prison designed to follow a theory that only through solitary confinement could a prisoner reach true regret, or penitence -- hence "penitentiary" -- in their hearts and soul. The separate system design, also known as the Pennsylvania system, was later copied by more than 320 prisons worldwide. (The solitary system at Eastern State was officially abandoned in 1913.)

Over the 142 years it was in operation, the prison had several well-known inmates, including prolific bank robber William "Slick Willie" Sutton and notorious gangster Al "Scarface" Capone, whose ornate cell where he spent eight months is now on view for visitors to see.

By the 1960s, newer prisons had been built, and the remaining Eastern State inmates were transferred to Graterford in 1969 and 1970; the outdated Eastern State Penitentiary was abandoned in 1971. For years, it stood in near ruin. It became a haunting, ghostly structure -- a maze of crumbling cell blocks, empty guard towers and dark corridors -- before efforts were made in the 1980s to do something with the large property. Eastern State Penitentiary opened for daily tours in 1994, and last year saw more than 190,000 visitors, according to Sean Kelley, program director at the historic site.

The little synagogue, however, remained forgotten after the prison closed, even as work began to preserve other parts of the decaying historical site. But now, work has finally started at the 179-year-old tourist destination in the city's Fairmount section to restore the synagogue to the beauty of its heyday in the 1950s; officials intend to have the project completed in time for Yom Kippur this October.

Religion Behind the Walls

Religion was an important component of life at Eastern State, stated Kelley. He noted that prison records show that as early as 1837, a rabbi had visited Jewish inmates to offer spiritual guidance.

Although Eastern State didn't hold too many Jewish inmates, he reported -- at its peak, there were no more than 80 Jews in a prison that held roughly 1,500 inmates, but usually it hovered at about 20 -- "there was always some Jewish life here in the building."

After the solitary-confinement system ended, Jewish prisoners looked for a place to hold regular services. A handful of Jewish prisoners gathered at the small emergency hospital for services that were offered for Passover, Yom Kippur and other holidays; weekly Shabbat services were added later.

Alfred W. Fleisher, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist, was president of the prison's board of trustees from 1924 until 1928, and promoted and attended all of the Jewish holiday services held at Eastern State. Using his position on the board, noted Kelley, Fleisher pushed for the construction of a formal synagogue, which was probably built in 1924 -- more than 100 years after the prison itself opened.

The synagogue -- the length of four adjoining cells -- was built off a cellblock in a space that had served as individual exercise units back in the days of solitary confinement.

"It's a very, very small room," Kelley said of the 34-foot-by-15-foot room, which he called "a precious little space."

Upon Fleisher's sudden death in 1928, stated Cindy Wanerman, president of the board of directors, the Jewish prisoners dedicated the synagogue in his memory.

Other prominent people from the local Jewish community were also involved with Jewish prisoners in the first half of the 20th century, such as William Portner. An attorney and first Jewish president of the Prison Aid Society, which supported visiting rabbis, Portner attended all of the Jewish services at the penitentiary for more than two decades, beginning in 1923, offering council and companionship to Jewish inmates. Another influential Jew, Joseph Paull, brought them kosher meat and helped them find employment after their release.

Fleisher, Portner and Paull were all interested in prison reform, and are examples of "how the Jewish community did what Jews are supposed to do," expressed Wanerman. "They didn't turn their backs on their fellow Jews."

Nor could Wanerman turn her back on the lost synagogue. She remembered how shortly after she joined the board in 2002, she spotted the synagogue on the prison map and was taken to see it. Wanerman said that when she first saw the room, it reminded her of the bombed-out shuls in Poland from World War II.

"I just stood there; I didn't know where to walk," recalled Wanerman. "I never thought I would see a synagogue look like that in Philadelphia."

After consulting a rabbi, Wanerman, a member of Temple Sinai in Dresher, explained that as a Jew, she felt an obligation to help take care of the abandoned shul, where "decay has taken a toll."

She set to work raising funds, and since 2004, helped bring in the $280,000 needed to restore the synagogue. Many of those who donated, she noted, were descendants of the prison's chaplains, rabbis or volunteers, or other members of the local Jewish community.

"God gave me a job," said Wanerman about her efforts. "It just had to get done. We would have lost this place if we didn't do this now. Because of the condition it was in, we couldn't wait 10 years."

The vision, Kelley added, also includes converting the dilapidated room next door to the synagogue into an education center to describe the history and religion in general at Eastern State. This will allow for the synagogue to be kept as a strictly religious space without signs, as "it's a synagogue, not a museum exhibit."

Two other spaces, he noted, were also used for religious purposes at the penitentiary: a multidenominational chapel and a Catholic chaplain's office, used in later years by clergy of several faiths. Efforts to seek funding to restore the chaplain's office are under way.

For two days in early April, the synagogue was open to the general public for the first time; more than 600 people took part in special tours that were offered, before the space closed again in order to begin the renovations. The repair work began late last month, after some limited surveying, testing and documentation of the room in preparation for the removal of the wood paneling, benches and ark, said executive director Sally Elk. Those components were then moved off-site to the studio of Milner + Carr Conservation LLC, an architectural conservation firm based in Fishtown, for treatment and restoration. The ceiling was also evaluated, and new skylights are under construction. After an HVAC system is installed this summer, said Elk, the restored wooden elements will be brought back in.

Much of the information about the synagogue was uncovered by Laura Mass, who led an excavation of the room as part of her 2004 graduate thesis in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research into the history and building materials has been used to determine what the restored synagogue should look like.

"It felt important to me to do a topic that was Jewish," said the native New Yorker. "I'm very fortunate that my thesis topic is being restored. It's very exciting."

When completed, the Alfred Fleisher Memorial Synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary, named so many years ago in honor of its founder, will look like it might have in the late 1950s, with blue panel walls, a white ceiling and a large Jewish star painted on the ceiling above.

Kelley said that once the synagogue is restored, some guided tours -- perhaps focusing on the religious life of inmates -- might be offered next season. Wanerman noted that the synagogue has already been added to the self-guided audio tour; the stop number, appropriately, is 18 -- chai -- which means "life."

Missing Torah Mystery

A big question still puzzled Eastern State officials: when the prison closed, where did the synagogue's Torah go?

"We just hope no one stole it," Kelley said, noting that some things, such as the copper pipes, were taken. He hoped one of the last rabbis from the synagogue took it for safekeeping.

Though B'nai B'rith International has pledged to donate a Torah on permanent loan to the synagogue, noted Meryl Schorr, program coordinator at the B'nai B'rith northeastern field office here in Philadelphia -- she explained that members of the organization had a longstanding history of volunteering at the prison -- it seems that lasting mystery may have been solved.

Edward Neiderhiser, an ordained Lutheran minister and director of the chaplaincy program at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford, where most of the remaining Eastern State inmates were sent, said "a strong possibility" exists that the missing Torah is one of two his prison has. (The Jewish Congregation at Graterford was formally chartered in June 1987 as a member of the Union of Reform Judaism.)

He conferred with a male inmate at Graterford who's been there since 1971, around the time Eastern State closed; the inmate said that the Eastern State Torah was brought to Graterford initially, but whether it remains there he doesn't know.

Hanley Rubinsohn of Elkins Park, 94, who volunteered for more than 50 years at local prisons -- first at Eastern State, where his father was an on-call surgeon, then at Graterford -- also said that to the best of his recollection, Graterford "must have taken the one from Eastern State."

So has the mystery been solved?

"That would be really amazing," said Kelley. "It's encouraging to think it wasn't just stolen. I'd be glad to know it has been taken care of all this time."

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