Just outside the entrance to Mikveh Israel's sanctuary, a display case houses replicas of letters to the historic congregation from three American presidents: George Washington in 1790, Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1940 offered congratulations on the shul's 200th anniversary.
These days, though, the focus at the Old City, Sephardi congregation that sits on Independence Mall is on another president — and it has nothing to do with the 2012 race for the White House.
On Dec. 4, more than 300 people attended a gala dinner at the National Museum of American Jewish History honoring the shul's president, or parnas, Leon Levy, with an award named for Haym Solomon, the Mikveh member who helped finance the Revolutionary War. Former Sen. Arlen Specter and former Gov. Ed Rendell were among the speakers.
The 77-year-old is stepping down after leading the synagogue for 31 years. (Specter quipped that he thought presidents were term-limited.)
Levy's decision to retire from his volunteer position marks the latest development during a period of transition for Mikveh Israel, a synagogue that prides itself on continuity. The Spanish-Portuguese-style service, for example, has undergone very few changes in 271 years. One was ditching the prayer for England's King George.
In August 2010, the National Museum of American Jewish History, which had shared the building with the synagogue for 35 years, vacated the property in order to move into its grand new home a block south.
That departure left Mikveh Israel with much-needed space. In the past, events and Shabbat meals were held in the lobby with tables and people often tightly packed in. Now, many more people can be accommodated, though not enough to host the Levy gala.
"We could barely breathe and they could barely breathe," said Rabbi Albert Gabbai, who has led the congregation for the past 23 years. Prior to the move, he also sat on the museum's board.
But the museum's relocation has posed a new challenge: how best to use the additional space.
And with more room comes more responsibility: In the past, the museum was in charge of building maintenance. To help meet these challenges, the congregation has added some key staff members. Lea Alvo-Sadiky has assumed the new position of executive director. The attorney's portfolio includes long-term planning and fundraising.
Chazzan Shalom Garson, who was raised in the British colony of Gibraltar, arrived a year ago. The synagogue hasn't had two clergy on staff since the 1970s. Several congregants interviewed at the Levy dinner said they hoped that Garson, the 34-year-old father of two, would play a leading role in attracting younger members.
"We have to raise the profile of the synagogue," Garson said of the 250-member congregation. "Given that Philadelphia has more than 200,000 Jews, our membership numbers do not reflect the prestige of our synagogue, and this is something that we need to address."
Mikveh Israel, which has occupied five buildings and four locations and also owns three cemeteries, is by far the oldest congregation in Philadelphia and one of the oldest in the country. (Several synagogues claim to be the longest continually operating congregation in the country, with scholars saying that the records are not complete enough to know for sure.)
The congregation is perhaps best known for the roles some of its members played in the fight against the British. Yet the synagogue's entire history is awash with colorful figures. For example, in the 19th century, the shul's chazzan, Isaac Leeser, founded numerous institutions that later became central to Jewish life.
He founded the American Publication Society, the forerunner of today's Jewish Publication Society and, along with fellow member Rebecca Gratz, helped start the Hebrew Sunday school movement. He also started the first rabbinical seminary in the country and the first Jewish newspaper, both of which no longer exist.
Levy's own devotion to the synagogue stems in part from appreciation for its history, he said during a recent interview at his Center City financial services firm. By most accounts, his life has revolved around the congregation for decades.
"I was a good politician," Levy says of why he stayed in such a demanding volunteer position for so long."I had the ability to keep the peace, I had the ability to find creative financing, I had the ability to make friends, even with enemies. I had the ability to listen and act and, sometimes, I had a convenient hearing deficiency."
Levy grew up in a Ladino-speaking home near South Street, in a sea of Yiddish speakers. His father had immigrated from Chanakalle, Turkey, and his mother hailed from Kevala, Greece.
On Shabbat and holidays, he used to walk with his father and brother all the way to the shul's North Philadelphia building.
According to several sources, the synagogue thrived up until World War II, but faded somewhat as more and more Jews moved to the suburbs. Mikveh Israel considered its own move to the suburbs — and even hired famed architect Louis Kahn to draft the plans — but in 1976, the congregation chose instead to move half a block from its original location in Old City, part of a broader effort to revitalize Independence Mall.
A turning point in the synagogue's recent history came in 1988, with the arrival of the Egyptian-born Gabbai. At the rabbi's urging, Levy helped institute what has become one of the shul's signature marks: meals served after services on Friday night and Saturday morning.
Though the shul is Orthodox, members span the observance spectrum. A number of members drive on Shabbat and live in the northern and western suburbs. Some even belong to multiple synagogues. Several members interviewed at the Levy gala said that they remain attached to the congregation because of the Sephardi customs, while others cited the historical significance and welcoming nature of the place.
Although the synagogue adheres to the customs of the Spanish-Portuguese service that were largely preserved in the Ottoman Empire, Ashkenazim, or Jews of European descent, have made up the majority of its membership throughout most of its history.
Realtor Nate Naness of Cherry Hill, N.J., first entered Mikveh Israel in the 1990s to say Kaddish for his father. He was moved by the tunes sung in major keys — most Ashkenazi liturgy is sung in minor keys — and ultimately met his wife, Ruti, at the shul. On Sukkot, a few years after joining, he proposed to her in front of the whole congregation.
"It is a very vibrant synagogue," Naness, who is in his 40s, said, adding that about a dozen married couples found their mates at the synagogue since he arrived.
Executive Director Alvo-Sadiky, a member since 1991, also met her husband at shul. Now in her mid-40s, she noted that the number of young families is growing and for the past few years, the shul has run a children's program each Shabbat.
Carol Marchand — a retired school psychologist and another Ashkenazi Jew who became involved with Mikveh Israel after the death of a parent — has belonged to the synagogue for the past six years and now couldn't imagine going anywhere else. If she could change one thing about the congregation, she said, it would be to increase the number of young members.
She said the addition of Garson, whom she described as a dynamic, young chazzan, is a step in the right direction.
For now, the congregation faces many choices, not the least of which is who will succeed Levy. A new president hasn't yet been elected.
Then there's the issue of what to do with the building. The area formerly occupied by the museum took up about half the structure. The shul has repainted that space and hung portraits of past Mikveh leaders. But officials said they are still toying with how best to use the area.
"We've been working on a grand plan for Mikveh Israel for many years," said Alvo-Sadiky. "We are still trying to figure out what to do with our space."
For years, members and staff have been envisioning an expansion. Gabbai said that two years ago, architectural plans were drawn up for an addition that would include a teen lounge, more function and classroom space, and a Sephardi cultural center. But, he said, such a proposal has never been formerly adopted by the board and it is an issue the new president must address.
"This congregation will continue to be a light unto other congregations," the rabbi said. "Can you close your eyes and see Philadelphia without Mikveh Israel? It's an impossibility. Without Mikveh Israel, we have a big hole — and I'm talking about Philadelphia, not Jewish Philadelphia only."