Jewish South Philly, Pre-K and the Consulate: A Conversation With Mayor Kenney


While the neighborhood bona fides of Philadelphia’s new mayor, James Kenney, known as “Jimmy from the Block,” are well known — he has long made reference to having grown up in South Philadelphia in a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood — few people know of how the Jewish community had a major impact on his life.

“Fourth and Snyder was the Jerusalem of South Philadelphia,” he told the Jewish Exponent in an interview shortly after he took office. “Part of who I am is that neighborhood. I remember the smells of that wooden store with the pickle barrels and the lox you could see through.”

Kenney became the city’s 99th mayor on Jan. 4, and succeeds Mayor Michael Nutter, who served two terms. The 57-year-old Kenney was elected six times as a Democrat to an at-large seat on City Council. He began his political career in 1992 and has been a staunch supporter for the environment, equality and workers’ rights. He also helped establish Philadelphia’s 311 system.

The South Philly of Kenney’s childhood, circa 1960s, was a very Jewish area, he recalled. There was a synagogue on almost every street and one-third of the community was Jewish.

Jewish families ran businesses up and down Seventh Street and people could buy everything from food to underwear. He recalled Lil and Snocky, who owned the Soda Fountain at Second and Snyder.

Lil was very tough, but nice: “If she was a man, she’d be a mensch,” Kenney said. “Seventh Street was the shopping mecca of South Philly. It was colorful, vibrant and fragrant — it was just great.”

One Jewish shop he visited frequently was Lusher’s, a notions store on Third and Snyder owned by Mrs. Lusher. It was always a unique experience going there, the mayor said. His mother, Barbara, would give him a list of items to pick up. Mrs. Lusher would reach up to the top shelf with a picker and mid-air grab the box and catch the hook of the picker.

Moving deftly from places that aren’t there anymore to places that are in danger of befalling the same fate, Kenney stressed that the biggest issue for him regarding the Jewish community is keeping the Israeli consulate here. On Jan. 8, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel announced it will be closing the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region by December.

Kenney and his staff are looking at the financial needs of the consulate. He has been in touch Consul General Yaron Sideman and is hoping to hear back soon about the issues that need to be addressed.

“We’re trying to come up with ways to show the Israeli government that we really don’t want to lose the consulate,” he said. “It really is very important to us and we’ll do everything we can to keep it here.”

The mayor also hopes to build off the partnerships Mayor Michael Nutter formed with Israel by creating new bonds with Israeli companies.

Nutter visited Israel twice during his tenure — in July 2015, when he received pledges from at least five Israeli companies to set up offices within the city, and in 2013, when he met with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the mayors of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

“It’s important to continue business relationships between Philadelphia and Israel,” Kenney said. “Obviously, Philly is a major city when it comes to our Jewish population.”

The mayor has not been to Israel, though he has not done much traveling outside of the country besides visiting his native Ireland in 1983. He didn’t rule out traveling to the Jewish State in the future, but emphasized that if and when it happened, it would not be in his first two years in office.

Kenney also addressed the city’s growing poverty issue and his first 100 days in office. One of the reasons he ran for office is because Philadelphia is the No. 1 deep poverty city in the country. He believes this is linked to poor education. To that end, he has directed his administration to focus on providing more services to schools, including a plan to roll out universal pre-kindergarten by the fall of 2017.

“We’re moving fast,” Kenney said. “It’s a big program. The more people we have educated, the less people we have to take care of.”

Despite its popularity as an early benchmark, Kenney didn’t hide his lack of enthusiasm for using his first 10 days in office as a barometer of success.

“I don’t like ‘100 days,’ ” Kenney said. “What they expect from this administration is chemistry, fairness, hard work, the inclusion of every group in this city, making sure that every ZIP code in this city matters and that every child in our city has the opportunity to meet their potential.”

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