On a warm autumn morning in Philadelphia on a street lined with Federal Revival houses from the early 1700’s, is the Society Hill Synagogue (418-426 Spruce Street). This is my first stop of a “walking tour” in the once predominately Jewish area where withi an eight block area there were 8 synagogues.
The front doors are still locked but since there is a children’s day school, I know someone would appear soon. In the meantime, I busy myself by reading the large plaque describing William Penn’s Bold Experiment, which included this gracious classical Revival building designed in 1849 by Thomas Walter. Originally, it featured two towering cupolas which have been removed. In its first persona, the building for 81 years, served as a Baptist congregation.
With the influx of Eastern European Jews, by l910 there was a need for a prayer house and in time, this massive distinguished building would become home to three Jewish congregations. Beth Hamedresh Hogodol and Nusakh Ashkenas from 1911 to 1915 and in 1916 it became the major Orthodox congregation, Great Romanian Synagogue which continued until 1967. Still very visible is the name in Yiddish over the entrance. The beautiful vanilla colored edifice became the conservative Society Hill Synagogue in 1967.
Someone finally appears. A friendly woman, who has been with the shul for decades, asks if I would like to see the interior. What surprises me is the total lack of decoration – no embellishments, no wall murals. The congregation wanted a “meeting house”. Even the Zodiac, which once surrounded the ceiling fixture, no longer exists. The only concession is the recently widened bimah once “too narrow for brides with wide gowns”. The one kitchy touch that remains from the early days, are the gilt lions above the arch. Their eyes light up when the lights are turned on. The approximately 325 members decide amongst themselves how the shul should run. The synagogue is unaffiliated with the United Synagogue Society of America.
A short walk from here is The Center for Advanced Judaic Studies (420 Walnut Street), financed by the philanthropic billionaire, Walter Annenberg. It’s on the grounds and affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. Behind locked doors on the ground floor, are some of the most significant Judaica in the world. A treasure trove of Egypt’s Genizah is displayed in this inner sanctum including fragments from a 10th century Hagadah. On the upper levels of this multi storied building are 180,000 volumes and manuscripts in 20 languages e.g. Hebrew Arabic, Judaic Arabic, Judaic Persian etc.
Kesher Israel Synagogue, (412 Lombard Street), started as the Universalist Church in 1796. By 1887 it had become a small shul and by 1894, the Kesher Israel Synagogue founded by Russian Jews. After some refurbishing, under the brown ceiling, beautiful blue and white tiles were discovered. The chandelier from the late 1800 was salvaged, redipped and re-hung. Most unusual are Morris Balk’s folk art paintings which replicate the original murals. One of the most attractive details is the curved balcony – the women’s seating area. Now the men and woman sit together.
It is a perfect day for walking and soon I’m in front of B’nai Abraham (527 Lombard Street). It seems that every synagogue was something else before. This was the First Colored Wesley Methodist Church. Today, it’s Orthodox. The story here is that 17 Lithuanian Jews, after some renovations, moved into the building in 1885.
The large colorful stain glass window, first appears elaborate, a contrast from the simple benches and floors. On closer inspection, I see that it is really only set in concrete, which gives the illusion of a grander size. From the beginning, B’nai Abraham became the central meeting place for discussions. Today, it has a growing membership.
In a series of row houses, is Vilna Shul (508 Pine Street). Only 18 feet wide, it was once a private house but reminiscent of an old “stiebel” in East Europe. However, by 1922 an addition was built in the rear. . A women’s balcony with a fine banister, colorful stained glass windows, heavy dark wood benches, an embossed tin ceiling, are part of the allure. With the ever-decreasing membership, it waned and wavered during the time when the Jewish population of the Society Hill area headed to the suburbs as their wealth increased. But this building always had a “special feeling” and there were men who wanted the institution to continue. When water damaged the building a few years ago, private grants were donated to build new roofs. Not much has changed except that the balcony is no longer in use as men and women no sit downstairs, separate but together.