In an increasingly divided country, it can be difficult to imagine sites of unity and tolerance for differing identity groups. But the building at the corner of Limekiln Pike and Washington Lane is, in some ways, a brick-and-mortar representation of what some disparate groups have in common rather than what sets them apart.
The West Oak Lane structure was first built by Jews in 1947 for a congregation called Temple Sinai. Flossie Albert, who broke ground on the complex’s school at the time, recalled that the congregation had been meeting for a few years at an American Legion before they tried a brief stint in a building on 74th and Ogontz.
“It was a dreadful building,” she said, shuddering at the memory of the basement classrooms. The building in West Oak Lane worked well, though. From 1947 to 1977, Temple Sinai was home to hundreds of families. In the early days, Bar Mitzvahs were doubled and tripled up on Shabbat, and Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, who would become a world-famous rabbi in his own right, was a massive draw on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.
“Sidney drew a mob. A mob!” Albert remembered. The synagogue was the center of social life for its members.
In 1977, the congregation relocated to its current location in Dresher, and before long, the original building had a new tenant: the West Oak Lane Church of God.
Pastor Horace Sheppard, whose pastor father led the church back then, said the congregation felt the enormity of the building they were inheriting. He likened them to Joshua taking over leadership of the Israelites after Moses’ death, looking out over Canaan: “How can we possess something so large?” But they found a way, building a community of hundreds that stayed in the building until 2013 — enough time for Sheppard to leave, come back and take his father’s place at the pulpit.
“Temple Sinai was just a great building,” he said.
Mezzuzahs from the previous residents remained on some of the doorposts, and more than a few former Temple Sinai congregants came back to pay their respects over the years, occasionally sitting in on Sunday services.
When it came time to sell the building, there was interest from Imam Mikal Shabazz of the Masjidullah mosque.
“Oh boy,” Shabazz laughed. “We had been looking for a long time” — since at least 1990, he recalled. But this building was the winner, in part because of Shabazz’s affinity for the number 12.
Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, he explained, both have 12 letters. Philadelphia is 39 feet above sea level — 3+9 — and is situated at 39 degrees latitude, 75 longitude. Masjidullah’s origin story, he added, is similar to that of Joseph, the favorite son of 12. Not only that, the story of Joseph (Yusuf, in the Quran) takes place in Chapter 12.
The most important 12 in his life, however, is 7401 (7+4+1) Limekiln Pike, the address of the onetime-synagogue, onetime-church that is now the home of Masjidullah, Inc.
“These were signs from God that we were on the right path,” Shabazz said.
Until he found this building, the congregation of hundreds had been packed into spaces far too small for its increasing growth. After a few near successes in the preceding years, a large fundraiser in 2013 put the congregation in the position to buy the Church of God, transforming it into Masjidullah (“House of God,” in Arabic). It was a sale that Sheppard was more than happy to make.
“It still could be an example of at least, at the very least, a certain level of tolerance and a certain level of respect for people,” he said, to sell the building to a group of a different faith.
And now, the Masjidullah community has a space to hold interfaith forums, prayer, musicals, banquets and more. “It’s like a dream come true,” Shabazz said.
“Independent of our labels and our nationalities,” he said, “we are all one.”
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