The Eastern State synagogue prior to preliminary preservation work carried out during Summer 2004.
An Eastern State intern works on clearing out the approximately six inches of debris that covered the floor of the synagogue.
The Eastern State synagogue after the excavation was nearly complete.
The restored synagogue opened to the public in April, 2009.
Situated within the row of converted exercise yards along Cellblock Seven is a synagogue used by the Jewish inmates of Eastern State from the early decades of the 20th century until the prison’s closing in 1971.
Historical research has revealed a compelling story about the Eastern State synagogue. Although there were never more than 80 Jewish inmates at any one time, these prisoners were consistently looked after by volunteers from the outside Jewish community. Records show that as early as 1845, Jewish inmates were visited by local rabbis who provided them with counsel and religious reading material. During the 1920s, after the abolition of solitary confinement, the synagogue was created so that Jewish inmates could congregate and to observe the Sabbath and various holidays. Organizations such as B’nai B’rith not only helped fund various phases of construction of the synagogue, they also made sure that all holidays were properly observed. The effect of the charity bestowed upon these inmates is reflected both in their letters of appreciation, as well as in their willingness to dedicate their own time and savings towards redecorating and refurbishing the synagogue over the years.
The synagogue is named for Alfred W. Fleisher, President of the Board of Trustees of Eastern State Penitentiary from 1924-1928, who was an active prison reformer and helped found the synagogue. Upon his sudden death in 1928 at age 50, the Jewish inmates were so moved by their loss, that they placed a bronze tablet in the synagogue, dedicating the room to his memory.
Volunteer and donor William Portner attended every Jewish service held at the penitentiary between 1923 and 1940. Volunteer Joseph Paull became compelled to work with the prisoners after performing his strongman act at Eastern State in 1923. He volunteered until 1960, and often donated meat from his kosher butcher shop. He even founded a program to match Jewish prisoners with employers upon their release. A fourth volunteer, Bernie Watman, would sit in the synagogue with the Jewish inmates assembled around him in a circle and, relate current events, local news which he thought will be of interest to men whose homes were in the city of Philadelphia.
The synagogue retained clear indications of its former use - imprints of Jewish stars mark the entrance, a reader’s table stands in the center of the room, and a well-preserved wooden Torah Ark adorns the eastern wall. However, years of neglect had taken a toll on the site. The synagogue was in a state of partial ruin – masonry walls were deteriorating and large portions of the decorative plaster ceiling had collapsed.
Critical intervention was needed not only to prevent further deterioration of this important site, but also so that the synagogue may be interpreted and open to the public for visitation. Preliminary work on the synagogue's restoration began with an "excavation" of the layers of debris that covered the floor. This process resulted in some interesting discoveries including several Hanukkah song sheets found buried underneath six inches of mortar and plaster. Samples of plaster, paint and mortar were saved as evidence of what the synagogue looked like at various times. Finally, an analysis and treatment plan of the wooden benches and Torah Ark was completed.
A Synagogue Restoration Committee, headed by Cindy Wanerman, dedicated itself to raising the funds needed to preserve this unique site. The Committee held a "charrette," evaluated the historical documentation, and determined the appearance of the restored room. We committed to restoring the Alfred W. Fleisher Synagogue, as "a lasting memorial" to a modest man whose quiet efforts and those of his friends, William Portner and Joseph Paull, had been largely forgotten. We raised over $345,000 to restore this sacred space — unique in the city of Philadelphia — and to create the accompanying exhibit.
Critical stabilization of exterior walls, waterproofing and restoration of roof and skylights, and selective conservation of interior masonry, plasterwork and furnishings took place in 2008 and 2009. We opened the Synagogue and its exhibit to visitors in the Spring 2009.
View the complete list of funders for the Synagogue Restoration here, and the complete list of funders for the Memorial Exhibit here.
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