Mar 12, 2008
Open for First Time in Thirty-Five Years
(Philadelphia, March 12, 2008): Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Sites beautiful, long-abandoned Synagogue will open to the public for the first time, Saturday and Sunday, April 5 and 6, 2008. Preservation and rehabilitation of the Synagogue will begin later in the month, and this will be the only chance for visitors to see the space in its eerie, but surprisingly beautiful condition.
It has been more than three and half decades since the last Jewish service at Eastern State Penitentiary, but the small Synagogue, tucked into a narrow alleyway off Cellblock 7, still feels like a holy place. The Readers Table still faces the Ark, the room is still lined with benches, and sunlight still filters through the skylights onto the red tile floor. A ghostly Star of David is just visible on the door. But very few peopleaside from a handful of historians, preservationists, and special guestshave seen the room during the past 35 years. It has never been open to the public.
Visitors attending the Lost Synagogue Weekend, April 5 - 6, can meet the historians and planners, see the vision for the Synagogues rebirth, and visit this beautiful, poignant space tucked into areas of the prison never before opened to the public. The 45-minute tours will include extensive photographs of the Synagogue throughout its history, artifacts found in the space, and sections of the penitentiary complex normally closed to the public. The Lost Synagogue Weekend tours are free with admission, but subject to availability.
There will be a Press Preview of the space and formal unveiling of the vision for the Synagogues future on Thursday, April 3 at 10 am.
The Lost Synagogues History
The Synagogue was originally built in the early 1920s under the leadership of Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist Alfred Fleisher, who was the President of the Eastern State Penitentiary Board of Trustees at the time. Mr. Fleisher attended all Jewish services at Eastern State until his death in 1928, and the Jewish inmates named the Synagogue The Alfred Fleisher Memorial Synagogue, as a lasting memorial of the kindness and justice Fleisher has always shown.
When public tours of Eastern State Penitentiary began in 1994, the Synagogue was deteriorated, primarily because leaks in its roof led to extensive damage to the plaster ceiling and wooden elements. In addition, public access to the space was made impossible by invasive trees that collapsed portions of the stone walls along either side of the Synagogues alleyway entrance.
In 2004, Laura Mass, a graduate student in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania, finished writing her thesis on the Synagogue. Her research helped uncover the history of Jewish life at Eastern State, dating to the 1830s, and identified the men from the Philadelphia Jewish community whose loyalty to the prisoners led to the construction of the Synagogue in the early 1920s. (At its peak, the Jewish population within the prison was no more than eighty inmates.) Ms. Mass thesis revealed a compelling story of the volunteers, each dedicated to supporting the small group of inmates over many years, attending to their personal lives, and helping them maintain their faith.
One volunteer was Joseph Paull (left, with inmates and officers in the Synagogue), who first visited Eastern State Penitentiary as a strongman to entertain the inmates. Mr. Paull attended Jewish services at the prison, donated food from his kosher butcher shop, and found jobs for more than 300 inmates upon their release. William Portner, President of the Prison Aid Committee in the 1920s and 1930s, attended all Jewish services at the prison from 1923 to 1940.
Following the completion of her thesis, Ms. Mass led a team of interns that carefully evaluated and removed the twelve inches of debris covering the Synagogue floor. Although consisting primarily of fallen ceiling plaster, the debris had potential to contain other artifacts relating to the Synagogues history, and the team approached the room as an archeological site: it was sectioned, the debris was removed with trowels, and was then sifted through a screen to catch artifacts. The team found pages from a song book used for holiday celebrations, intact portions of the decorative ceiling plaster, including a point of the ceilings Star of David, and samples of painted plaster that helped determine the interior decorative scheme of the Synagogue through time. The team also discovered the use of the service area at the rear of the space, establishing its use for holidays and other events that involved kosher food.
By 2005, the historic site had secured funding to provide the Synagogue with a new roof, gutters and downspouts, and to complete extensive stone restoration along the alley leading to the space.
Howard Fleisher and Suzanne Fleisher Roberts, children of Synagogue founder Alfred Fleisher, remembered their fathers role as a prison reformer and President of the Eastern State Penitentiary Board of Trustees, but they were completely unaware of their fathers involvement in the Synagogue. Howard was deeply moved by his first visit the small space, and by the story of the Jews that volunteered to visit prisoners and celebrate their faith. At age 92, he hopes that he can witness the Synagogue restoration in honor of his father.
Rabbi Martin Rubinstein began working as the last Jewish Chaplain at Eastern State Penitentiary in the mid-1960s. He remembers being fingerprinted and checked out by the FBI before his application was accepted. He came into Eastern State once a week to conduct services and meet with inmates individually. To this day, he says, I am proud of the fact that my congregants were the only religious group that never had a guard present during their services. He remembers that it was the inmates themselves who enforced the rule: Nothing [rowdy behavior, outside conflicts] comes into the Synagogue. Nothing. Rabbi Rubenstein said he tried to also remember this saying: Do not judge your fellow man until youre standing in his place. Because God forbid we should be put to that test.
Religion at Eastern State Penitentiary
In addition to the Synagogue, there are two other spaces that have been used for religious purposes at Eastern State. The Catholic Chaplains office stands opposite the alley that leads to the Synagogue. Originally built as the office for Warden Cassidy in the 1870s , it was later used by visiting chaplains of several faiths. An inmate painted a series of murals there in the 1950s, depicting the life of Christ and Catholic life. These murals have been stabilized until this space can be conserved and restored. A large, multi-denominational chapel occupies the second floor of the Industrial Building. Here, Protestant services and Catholic mass were held for large groups of inmates.
The Lost Synagogue Brought Back
Eastern States Synagogue Restoration Committee, chaired by Board President Cindy Wanerman, has raised more than $280,000 to complete the restoration of the Alfred Fleisher Memorial Synagogue. These funds include substantial gifts from the Fleisher/Roberts and Portner families. The Synagogue restoration is expected to be complete by Yom Kippur, October 9, 2008. Upon completion, the Synagogue will be available primarily for public access on the historic sites tour program. However, the Philadelphia chapter of Bnai Brith has pledged a Torah that will be used in the Synagogue to celebrate holidays and special occasions. The Committee still seeks $50,000 for exhibits and other programs to tell the Synagogues story.
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the worlds first true penitentiary, a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of convicts. Its vaulted, sky-lit cells once held many of Americas most notorious criminals, including bank robber Slick Willie Sutton and Al Capone.
Tours today include the cellblocks, solitary punishment cells, Al Capones Cell, and Death Row. A critically-acclaimed series of artists installations is free with admission. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is located at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue, just five blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is open every day, year round (guided tours only from December 1 to March 30 annually). More information is available at (215) 236-3300 or www.EasternState.org.