28 March 2009

Philadelphia: Prison synagogue restored

The infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia closed in 1970 after a 142-year history.

From 1924 until the prison closed, it also housed a synagogue for Jewish inmates, now restored. It is believed to have been the first synagogue in a US prison.

The synagogue, created from an exercise yard, was rediscovered by University of Pennsylvania graduate student Laura Mass, who based her 2004 thesis on it. She discovered artifacts in the abandoned room such as holiday song book pages.

Adjacent to the synagogue, another exercise yard is now a museum on prison Jewish life, demonstrating the renovation and marking contributions of volunteers who helped sustain Judaism in the prison.

The New York Times detailed this bit of history here.

Water damage had rotted the wood of the ark, where Torah scrolls are traditionally kept, and destroyed plasterwork, including the ceiling's Star of David.

Now the synagogue, the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue, has been restored as a vital part of the 142-year history of the prison, which is a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public. The synagogue was named after its founder, a Jewish philanthropist who was president of the prison’s trustees in the 1920s.
Following the renovation, the 31-by-17-foot room features an ark, reading table, benches and a Star of David on the ceiling. The project, funded by private donations, ran about $230,000. It will be dedicated Wednesday and will become part of the prison's public tours, but will not be used for regular services.

Prior to 1913, all prisoners were in solitary confinement. A remnant of those days is seen in the synagogue, where a bench back can be lowered to reveal a wall with three low doors where inmates could enter individual exercise yards for an hour a day.

Left unrestored is the narrow kitchen where Jewish holiday kosher foods were brought in and prepared. It was left in its abandoned state so visitors can see what the space looked like before renovation.

The prison's last Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Martin Rubenstein, said the synagogue helped inmates stay connected to their families and Jewish tradition. It was the only religious space in the prison without a guard because the Jewish inmates were well-behaved during services. He added that the inmates offered to donate their prison wages to Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Read the complete story at the link above.

There's also a link to a 1993 story about another Pennsylvania prison synagogue in the State Correctional Institution at Graterford.

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