The Little Shul Is Getting a Facelift

The soon-to-be-renovated third floor at The Little Shul (Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel)

Leslie Feldman

In the heart of South Philadelphia is a row home synagogue, the last such operating shul in that neighborhood. The Little Shul — its real name is Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel — has stood the test of time because of its congregants.

The building, home to the synagogue since 1909, is showing its age.

The main floor has its original tin facades stamped with designs, with rows of small pews. An ark sits next to the far wall, illuminated by a glass Eternal Light that says “history.” The second floor is a social hall that was renovated once many years ago, with a new stairwell in the rear. Air conditioning was added, and a two-section cook sink was installed. The third floor was once a kitchen where women prepared meals and a room for the rabbi.

The congregation decided it was time for a transformation and embarked on a journey to give their place of worship a much-needed facelift — one that would honor its past while ushering in a vibrant new era.

“One of our congregants, Aaron Kaplan, and his two sons, Jacob and Carl, are volunteering to renovate the second floor as part of Jacob Kaplan’s Boy Scouts project,” synagogue President Rich Sisman said.

The project came about because Jacob Kaplan needed a project to earn his Eagle Scout badge.

“As we’re talking, we thought about the idea of doing something for the shul,” Kaplan said. “We happened to walk up to the third floor and saw it was very run down. The carpet is a mess, the paint is peeling, the walls are cracked and there were boxes all over the floor. We thought that if we started to spruce it up a bit, maybe we could turn it into a usable space.”

Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel, also known as the Little Shul (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

“The first part of the project, to be completed in June, is to consolidate the boxes and remove all the trash,” Aaron Kaplan said. “Once that is done, we are going to repair the walls with some new drywall and spackle over the cracks. One wall has some wallpaper, and we’re going to remove that. Once that is done, we’re going to paint.”

Aaron Kaplan’s other son, Carl, will be ready for his Eagle project soon.

“We’re not sure where to go next, but I think the next step will be to work on the closet area,” Aaron Kaplan said. “I believe there’s a bathroom up there that needs work. The windows will need replacing, and the closet should probably be knocked down and rebuilt. A drop ceiling with new lighting will be installed, and the carpet will be replaced.”

There are a few obstacles facing the project, one being access for congregants. Aaron Kaplan said that because many of them are older, using the steps to the third floor may be an issue.

“While appearing structurally sound, they are a little steep and rickety, in the way that steps to upper floors in older South Philly rowhomes are. While we can make the space usable, we’re going to need to figure out a way to make it easier to get up there,” Kaplan added.

Funding for the renovations is mainly from the Kaplans and congregants, but they are asking the Jewish Committee on Scouting if it would help.

“We’re really not allowed to solicit donations because it’s an Eagle Scout project, but if people want to send donations to the shul with a note earmarking it for third-floor renovations, we can’t stop them. However, we are not asking for anything at this time,” Aaron Kaplan added.

The Little Shul (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

Aaron Kaplan is hoping the third floor can be used as a classroom or a lending library and, if plumbing can be installed, they might be able to use it as a small area for more observant members to spend the night after Kol Nidre.

“I love the synagogue and find its old-world style charm,” Kaplan said. “My father used to go to the old shul at Sixth and Morris, and he always talked about how they don’t have shuls like that these days and how much he missed them,” he said.”

“Walking in here for the first time seemed like walking back in time, in a good way. Most of the people at services speak Hebrew with the Ashkenazi accent, not the standard Sephardi Hebrew I grew up with and I hear everywhere. It’s such a wonderful place, and my dream for the shul is to help turn it into a vibrant hub of Judaica. I know it’s cliche, but in this case, they really don’t make them like this anymore.”

Leslie Feldman is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.


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