At the End of a Northeast Philadelphia Street, a Basement Synagogue Pulsates with Life

Congregation Beth Midrash HaRav B’Nai Jacob in Northeast Philadelphia (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

About 90% of Jews in America and the Philadelphia area are Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or unaffiliated. So when the Jewish Exponent calls this section Synagogue Spotlight, it usually refers to a synagogue community: a group of people who find each other at the building.

But an Orthodox community is different. Traditional Jews live in the same neighborhoods and walk to their synagogues because they cannot drive on Shabbat. Theirs is a community, not a synagogue community. The worshipping space is almost incidental to the ecosystem.

The Exponent’s Synagogue Spotlight series has focused on this dynamic before. There are Orthodox communities on the Main Line, in Northeast Philadelphia and in other parts of the region. But perhaps no traditional community in the area embodies the structure and rhythm of Orthodox Judaism quite like the one along Algon Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia.

These traditional Jews refer to their synagogue as Congregation Beth Midrash HaRav B’Nai Jacob. But it is not a big building on its own property. It is in the basement of a duplex on Algon Avenue. A small black sign sitting on a backyard fence directs you where to go. Beyond that black sign is a sidewalk that loops around the duplex’s street. It takes just a few minutes to walk the entire loop. During that time, you will see neighbors talking to each other on their steps — even on a cool, late winter afternoon.

Congregation Beth Midrash HaRav B’Nai Jacob’s meeting place is in the basement of this duplex on Algon Avenue. (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

Later, around 5:40 p.m., you will see people getting home from work, parking their cars and walking to the synagogue for evening minyan. A similar routine, just with the cars going out instead of coming back in, played out in the morning after the early minyans. Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski said both gatherings are a part of the daily rhythm in this Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. Then, come Friday night, all of those people, along with many others, usually 75-80 in all, will cram into the basement for a Shabbat service. Afterward, they may go back to each other’s houses to eat together. Later, some community members might even return to the synagogue to study and learn a little more.

“It isn’t just a place where we live. It’s a place where we grow,” said Dennis Sacks, a 78-year-old resident of the neighborhood.

Leizerowski estimated that 90% of the people who live on the street are part of this Orthodox community. They are businessmen and social workers, among other professions. Many of them drive far away from their enclave each day to work in different sections of the region. As Shaiki Newman, a 57-year-old resident, put it, “I get up in the morning; I go to shul; I go to work.”

Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Midrash HaRav B’Nai Jacob. (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

Some families have young children who attend the nearby Politz Hebrew Academy. A 10-year-old boy even comes to the 6:30 a.m. minyan each day, according to the rabbi, who calls that “a beautiful thing.” Other families have children who are older and who, like many of their contemporaries from non-Orthodox synagogues, moved away from the area. Sacks’ kids, for instance, live in New York City and Israel.

And while everyone in the community is religious, there are still levels. Sacks said that he was not able to attend minyans when he was still working at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. He had to work long hours. But when he retired, he started going every day. Newman can only attend evening minyans in the summer when the sun sets later. During the rest of the year, his business prevents him from getting there in time. The father of four also said that, when his kids were growing up and going through Politz, some families were “very religious” and others were “not very religious.”

The basement gathering space inside 7926 Algon Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

But no one judged each other. What mattered, according to Newman, was that they were together. It’s a spirit that continues today. During the first week of March, one family’s heater went out. The neighbors got together in a WhatsApp group to offer backup options and space in their houses. When Sacks’ wife was in the hospital, he was not allowed to eat a Shabbat dinner alone.

“How is your wife? How are you doing? Do you want me to pick up something for you?” he recalled of those dinner conversations.

Leizerowski does not have a dues structure for the synagogue. He does not need one. If the duplex on Algon Avenue needs a new roof for $12,000, the rabbi just informs the community.

“They understand,” he said. ■

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