‘Synagogues of Philadelphia’ Traces Jewish History Through Synagogues

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The two hot spots in the Greater Philadelphia area where Judaism is growing are Lower Merion and Center City Philadelphia, with Orthodox, Reform and Conservative communities holding their own or expanding.

That’s according to Ira Poliakoff, author of Synagogues of Philadelphia, who notes that the entire city of Philadelphia outside Center City is losing synagogues — and there are neighborhoods where all are gone.

Published earlier this year, Synagogues of Philadelphia lists each synagogue in alphabetical order, by county, including the history of its leadership and its structure. It discusses the historical significance of shuls in Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties.

In tracking the trajectory of the shuls in their movement, mostly from Philadelphia to the suburbs, and their mergers, Poliakoff traces the movement of the Jewish population. That movement reflects the social and historical trends that provoked migration and cultural shifts within the community.

“About 125 synagogues exist today in the area, and that’s counting a lot of small minyanim,” Poliakoff said. “About 75-85 are physical buildings,” with the remaining 375 having closed or merged into existing synagogues.

There are two or three shuls in Roxborough and Manayunk and one in Germantown, said Poliakoff, while Center City is holding strong and growing.

“In terms of jobs, there are more opportunities, and millennials want to be in the city to be close to industry and growth,” said professor Lila Berman, director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University.

Poliakoff suggests the large Hillel organizations of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University have contributed to the strong Jewish presence in Center City.

There are approximately 10 active synagogues in South Philadelphia, mostly on the cusp of Center City. South Philadelphia was home to more than 200 “Row House Shuls” at one time — small synagogues located in rowhouses where the rabbi lived upstairs, and prayer took place downstairs.

The number of South Philadelphia shuls decreased dramatically in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, due to demographic neighborhood shifts, Poliakoff explained.

“There is only one synagogue left in South Philly proper, Shivtei Yeshuron (The Little Shul), an independent shul on South Fourth Street, with about 20 members,” Poliakoff said. The congregation was founded in 1876, and moved to its current building in 1909, where Shabbat services are still held monthly. “Services are self-led, keeping the history of the shul alive,” he said.

There are a handful of smaller Orthodox shuls in Northeast Philadelphia that were formed during the period of Russian Jewish immigration to the area in the 1950s and ’60s, Poliakoff said. Today, most Orthodox synagogues are in Lower Merion, Center City or the Old York Road corridor, located between Jenkintown and Elkins Park.

Lower Merion is home to the largest Orthodox shuls in the Philadelphia area, Lower Merion Synagogue, along with eight other Orthodox shuls and additional minyanim. In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the number of Orthodox Jews, but Conservative numbers are still the largest, Poliakoff said.

Conservative Judaism skyrocketed in the Philadelphia area post-World War II, which can likely be traced to the 100,000 Jewish servicemen and servicewomen who returned home intending to marry and move to the suburbs, and looking for a new approach to Judaism, Poliakoff said. The United Synagogue of America had a postwar plan to assist new congregations.

Five large Conservative and Reform synagogues remain in the Old York Road corridor, but they are losing members, as the area is losing Jewish residents, he said.

Overall, the Jewish population in Montgomery County is growing, Poliakoff said.

“The area around Maple Glen and Blue Bell is growing, such as Reform Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen and Conservative synagogue Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell,” Poliakoff said. “Both of these shuls moved out there from failing Jewish neighborhoods.”

Beth Or came from Mount Airy and Tiferet Bet Israel came from two shuls that merged — one from Lansdale and one from Norristown, he said.

The Jewish population in Chester County is growing slowly, along with its Jewish suburbs. The population in Bucks County is slowly rising, and is home to a handful of strong, small shuls, such as The Little Shul by the River, a Reconstructionist synagogue in New Hope, Poliakoff said.

Meantime, the Delaware County Jewish population is declining.

The text features 150 historical documents and photographs taken by Poliakoff and David Blumenthal.

Poliakoff spent 14 months conducting interviews, including officials from synagogues and community members. He interviewed about 150 people in their 70s, 80s and 90s that recalled the area’s historic shuls.

“I went to Paul’s Run Retirement Community, the Abramson Center for Jewish Life and Wesley Enhanced Living, and asked the rabbis there to gather all of the Jewish residents,” he said.

Poliakoff was born in 1945 and moved to Long Island as a child, where he became a field worker for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. His job was to improve exiting synagogues and recruit new synagogues to join, which served as the inspiration for Poliakoff’s first book, Synagogues of Long Island. In the 1970s, Poliakoff met his future wife Judy Braude and moved to the Philadelphia area, where he has since lived.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. There are three active synagogues in South Philadelphia: The two others are (1) YPC Shari-Eli at Eighth and Moyamensing streets; and (2) the South Philadelphia Shtiebel at 1733 E. Passyunk Ave.

  2. The Rhawnhurst area in Northeast Philadelphia has a thriving Orthodox Jewish community with shuls and schools and kollels. The large kosher products and counter section at ShopRite near the Boulevard as well as a new supermarket size kosher grocery with fresh and ready-cooked delicacies points to the growing Orthodox Jewish community.

  3. My cousins Joey and Murray Costin run the shul at YPC Shari-Eli. Great little shul. Have been doing it for many years. Remember going to their Bar Mitzvahs.

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