Life at the Little Shul

-Post by Morris Levin, Bella Vista resident and board member and volunteer at Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel.

Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel is the Little Shul. It is a rowhouse synagogue, at 2015 S Fourth Street, before Snyder Avenue.

The congregation meets for Shabbos services and kiddush at 10:00 AM on the first Saturday of the month. There will be services this coming Saturday morning, February 6. Kiddush is at approximately 12:15pm. There is slivovitz and smoked fish.

I first came to Shivtei in 2010. A friend had blown shofar there on Rosh Hashannah, and I had heard there were a couple shuls still hanging on in South Philadelphia, making services for men and women, many now elderly, and their numbers dwindling.

Three of us walked down to Shivtei one Saturday morning in June, and together brought the magic number to ten. Hidden behind the brick and metal façade was a glowing 24-foot wide shteibel with tin walls and ceilings, weathered pews, and layers of South Philly Jewish history reflected in the memorial boards, yellowed siddurim, and Yiddish signage alongside Hebrew and English.

In subsequent months, I made a habit to walk down Fourth Street from Christian in Queen Village to Emily Street. I loved that I walked by Fourth and Reed Streets where my great grandmother had grown up, and by Fourth and Wharton where she married my great grandfather in 1912. Grindcore coffee shop is always buzzing, and Dickinson Square now has a farmer’s market.

I kept showing up and found services and a shul organization lay led by volunteers. Because of the once a month schedule and scale of the shul, it was easy to volunteer a little and make an impact. The board officers operate the shul, and a group of regulars organize services and kiddush.

This part of South Philadelphia was built between 1885 and 1895. Historic city maps list the shul’s building as originally a retail store. It is a three story building. The first floor is the sanctuary. The congregation moved there in 1909 and had purchased the building by 1917. The congregation continues to own the building in 2016.

South Philadelphia’s Jewish community contracted in the decades after World War II, and Shivtei Yeshuron absorbed the members, Torahs, and holy books of many of the closing neighborhood shuls. Area resident Alvin Heller led and maintained the shul until he passed away in 2005.

The rear wall of the synagogue’s building faces Moyamensing Avenue. In 2007, an exterior wall collapsed, and the building was marked for demolition by the city.

Elkins Park resident Rich Sisman had grown up on the block and attended the shul with his family until 1973. With the assistance of his brother, Steve Sisman, and Philadelphia architect and preservationist Joel Spivak, they stablized and saved the building and shul. The shul reopened for High Holiday services in 2008.

The shul’s revitalization aligns with the regeneration of the surrounding neighborhood. Today this neighborhood is called Pennsport by real estate professionals. Long time congregants and newcomers are watching the neighborhood evolve around the long-standing shul. The empty lots – used as true community spaces for free parking and trash– are becoming three and four story new construction projects.

Up Fourth street, long time Jewish hospital, Mt. Sinai, is being demolished, giving way to new construction. On January 12, Curbed Philly featured a glowing neighborhood review noting the area’s “numerous parks, playgrounds, recreational and after-school programs.”

Shivtei Yeshuron’s continues to grow the minyan month by month, bit by bit. The shul welcomed Katz Center and Feinstein Center programs in 2015. Tour groups continue to visit. The second floor is being renovated, and the shul opens it doors to area residents seeking an accessible (and free) Jewish space for life cycle events. We have had the joy to host two baby namings and a brit milah, and we were honored to be asked to host a memorial service for a South Philadelphia family.

What I appreciated, and still do, is the heterogeneity of those involved with the shul. Membership is $36 per-year for a single ($72 for a family), so it is economically accessible. Overhead is low, and a little goes a long way.

Those who attend come from and represent in their own lives a diversity of Jewish backgrounds, politics, and practices. Some speak Hebrew fluently and some can’t read any Hebrew. There is a lovely age range within the relatively small sample size. Some grew up in the shul, sitting next to their grandparents, while many of us are newcomers.

In addition to services, the shul also hosts speakers and cultural events. Many of those involved come just for services, while others have little interest in services and are active in planning other events, or helping its organization. Updates are posted to the congregation’s Facebook page, as well as to its website.

For those interested in hearing more, on Saturday night, February 20, the shul’s history (and future) will be the subject of a presentation at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s Torathon. The evening is open to the entire community!