Report Sheds Light on Import of Religious Buildings

B’nai Abraham in Society Hill | Photo by Smallbones via Wikimedia

In the Indian coastal town of Alibag, Malkah Mordechai Nagavkar leaves her one-room hut each day to help her sick brother walk across the street to Magen Aboth synagogue, which is painted bright pink, looking more like a pastry confection than a house of worship.

As of 2016, when Malkah was featured in Scattered Among the Nations: Photographs and Stories of the World’s Most Isolated Jewish Communities, Alibag’s Jewish community had just a handful of families; now it has less. Still, for Jewish tourists in India, Alibag remains a destination — not because of its thriving Jewish communal life, but because of that building.

Were Magen Aboth established in what was once the historic core of Philadelphia’s Jewish community, it probably wouldn’t be a synagogue today. It might not even be standing.

That’s a takeaway from a new report from Pew Charitable Trusts. Released last week, “Philadelphia’s Historic Places” was researched by PennPraxis at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design with the assistance of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places. It found 839 historic sacred places (HSPs) of all faiths as of early 2016.

Of the 839, 18 were categorized by researchers as non-Christian: 13 were Jewish, two were Buddhist, two were Muslim and one was interfaith. Another 11 were Quaker. The majority of the buildings were constructed between 1865 and 1929, and most are concentrated in and around Center City. Eighty-three percent of them are still used for religious purposes, while another 10 percent serve different functions.

Roughly 5 percent — 39 buildings — are vacant. And in the years prior to this report, between 2011 and 2015, 23 HSPs were demolished.

“The thing that surprised me — and maybe it shouldn’t have — is the extraordinary number of the buildings that are still in religious use that are now occupied by congregations other than the ones for which they were built,” said Larry Eichel, director of Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative. “We found that 378 out of the 839 are in this category, and that’s almost half the ones that are standing, and it’s more than half of those that are still in religious use.”

This was certainly true of synagogues.

“There are roughly 45 buildings in the city that were formerly used as synagogues that are still standing and are no longer synagogues,” Eichel said. “It looks like four or five of them are vacant, but others — quite a few of them — are churches, and there are a few that have been used for non-religious purposes.” One synagogue, Temple Sinai, is now a mosque.  

The changes in synagogue ownership, from Jewish congregation to church or day care or apartment, may be partly attributable to the well-documented decline in American religious practice. But it’s also a result of shifting populations. Between 1945 and 1965, according to the National Museum of American Jewish History, more than one in three Jewish families moved out of the city and into the suburbs, where more than a thousand synagogues and social centers were created to attract Jewish families. As of the year 2000, more American Jewish families lived in the suburbs than in a city.

Of course, plenty of city synagogues remain — including B’nai Abraham at Fifth and Lombard streets, the one Jewish congregation chosen for an in-depth review by the Pew researchers.

“Historic Congregation B’nai Abraham,” the report reads, “features a yellow-brick and terra-cotta exterior, Doric columns, and a huge rose window. According to Rabbi Yochonon Goldman, the congregation’s spiritual leader … ‘the  way they built this was … trying to build a synagogue which was familiar to them from Eastern Europe.’”

The iconic building has required renovation and maintenance over the years, as with most historic buildings. But the Pew report found that Philadelphia’s HSPs are in surprisingly good condition, with 61 buildings judged to be in very good condition overall.

“[It’s] a surprise,” said Philadelphia built-environment expert Nathaniel Popkin, co-author of the soon-to-be-released Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, “that most of the buildings are in decent shape.”

Popkin also noticed the report’s findings on historic designation: Seventy-nine percent of the HSPs didn’t have any.

“A significant obstacle to the preservation of religious buildings in Philadelphia,” Popkin said, “is the very small number protected from demolition by being on the historic register.”

There are other factors, negative and positive, that determine an HSP’s fate, including financial health, congregational leadership, community connection and changing neighborhoods. The Pew report did note that Philadelphia is good at reclaiming its buildings for other purposes.

Popkin finds the potential exciting: “This is a kind of opportunity for creative, imaginative urban investment. Only one old religious building has been turned into a restaurant or retail use. Could this change? Could some pretty exciting and dramatic spaces be put to exciting and dramatic use? This report helps because it identifies the dynamics of the issue.”

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