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South Philadelphia Synagogue May Face the Wrecking Ball
At the intersection of South Fourth and Emily streets, a three-story, red-painted brick building -- one level taller than the other properties -- stands out from among its neighbors. It has a pillared entrance that extends outward from the facade and quickly catches the eye. And yet, passersby would see no overt signs identifying the building as the home of Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel, a more than 100-year-old Orthodox synagogue.
The small Sephardic shul is now in danger of being closed down. On June 21, Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections, after surveying the premises -- for the second time in a year -- issued a violation notice for the property at 2015 S. Fourth St.
The notice stated that the rear wall of the structure is bulged, cracked, deteriorated, has loose and missing brickwork, "and is in danger of collapse." The notice also stated that if the congregation fails to "repair the wall or demolish the structure in whole or in part," the city "may take actions to comply with the city code by using its own forces or by contract."
Gayle D. Johns, spokeswoman for L&I, said that her office originally issued safety violations in July 2007, and that the congregants obtained a work permit the following month to make the necessary repairs. The work began, reported Johns, "and then the project was abandoned."
The work-related permit has since expired.
"I don't want to see it closed down," said Elkins Park's Richard Sisman, 50, president of the congregation affectionately known as "the Little Shul."
Since last summer, he's been leading the effort to at least repair -- and perhaps even restore -- the synagogue.
"It's been around for a long time," he said. "There is just so much history here."
Shivtei Yeshuron was founded in 1876 and chartered in 1892. In 1917, the congregation purchased the building on South Fourth. Sisman stated that the shul is the last Orthodox congregation still functioning in the lower end of South Philadelphia and dates from a time when small congregations could be found on nearly every block throughout the neighborhood. (Ezras Israel, explained Sisman, is just one of several congregations that merged with Shivtei Yeshuron over the years.) He said that services were held regularly there until about six months ago, though reaching a minyan was difficult since many of the two-dozen or so congregants, most of whom live in the area, are in their 80s and 90s.
Several younger congregants, whose parents and grandparents were once members or who, like Sisman, grew up at the synagogue but then later moved out of the area, have gotten involved again once this series of challenges cropped up.
Sisman noted that $10,000 was raised rather quickly last summer for the initial critical structural repairs to the small, attached back portion of the building, which used to serve as the caretaker's home, and where, for the past few decades, a congregationally operated soup kitchen served food after Shabbat morning services.
He explained that the contractor determined that the damage was far more extensive than first thought, and that the entire back portion would have to be taken down for structural reasons, greatly increasing the original cost of repairs. The work came to a halt earlier this year while congregants sought additional funding.
Johns reported that L&I received another complaint last month, and that an inspector determined that the structure was still in danger of collapse.
The office issued a second violation notice in a June 21 letter, giving Shivtei Yeshuron 30 days"to get a new permit and secure the site."
Sisman explained that with assistance from fellow congregants, he's reached out to local legislators to help gain access to state historic preservation grants, along with other fundraising efforts now under way to meet the new price tag.
"There is nothing I would rather do than get it completed," noted Sisman. "Hopefully, it will be saved."
Sisman explained that the contractor said, once he begins again, he could finish the demolition of the back portion within two weeks, giving Sisman hope that the property could be ready for the High Holidays.
"We received a request for an extension of time, which we granted, with the stipulation the site must be secured," noted Johns, adding that the department wants "to bring about a resolution" of the matter. She added that another extension could be granted if efforts were made to fully secure the property.