Where You Lead, I Will Follow

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The tour discusses several synagogues around South Street, Old City and Washington Square.
 

It’s not exactly a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, but there’s still plenty of Jewish history in Old City Philadelphia that you might not know about.
 
The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is a nonprofit historic preservation advocacy group that offers 20 different walking tours across the city with certified local guides.
 
The Jewish Immigrant tour will take place this Sunday, June 19, at 2 p.m. People interested in the tour can meet in front of Society Hill Synagogue at 418 Spruce St.
 
The tour discusses several synagogues around South Street, Old City and Washington Square.
 
Annie Bennett, program manager for the Preservation Alliance, said the Jewish tours — there’s also a colonial Jewish tour — have been around for about 10 years. They’re one of the most popular tours, in addition to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and Underground Philadelphia tours.
 
“This appeals to a unique market. It’s a niche,” Bennett said.
 
The Jewish tours are offered every month or two, and they’re capped at the first 25 people who arrive (sorry history buffs, no reservations prior).
 
The tours can last up to two hours, varying on how much distance they cover. Some tours walk the entire 1.7 miles of the Ben Franklin Bridge while others remain within a four-block radius of Old City.
 
“Immigrant history isn’t really something we focus on in Philadelphia,” Bennett added, which is an appeal of the tour. “We have the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, but we really don’t talk about what comes next after that, how the city grew.”
 
But what really makes a difference on these tours is the guide — specifically one guide.
 
Lynne Kalish is the only guide for the Jewish tours, though it’s been around longer than she’s been doing it, since about 2003.
 
Kalish trained to become a tour guide, completing a series of 12 lectures and learning the ins and outs from the guide who developed this tour, Henry Nechemias, who later moved to South Carolina.
 
“I decided to learn this tour because there were only, I think, two guides at the time that were giving it, and although I wasn’t raised Jewish, my family was Jewish, so I’m interested in Jewish history,” she said.
 
In fact, her parents converted before she was born, and she was raised Unitarian. She now belongs to the Unitarian Society of Germantown.
 
“But I have Jewish family, some of whom are rabbis,” she added.
 
The tour extends east and west from Third to Sixth streets and north and south from Spruce to Bainbridge streets. It ends at Congregation B’nai Abraham at Sixth and Lombard.
 
Kalish explains the history of four synagogues — social service organizations of the time, medical facilities, immigration, educational organizations, architecture — that are still active, as well as locations where there used to be synagogues.
 
A few of the buildings even have a Unitarian connection, she said, in which members of her church were the architects for some of them.
 
One of the synagogues started as a Universalist church where Joseph Priestley gave a series of lectures on Unitarian theology in 1796.
 
“Sometimes there are people who take the tour who are Jewish and know more about a particular congregation than I know, and they can correct what I have to say,” she admitted, like when some translate the Hebrew text on buildings. “I hope they’ll get a sense of what Philadelphia was like back at the turn of the 20th century. It’s like traveling back in time 100 years or more to the Philadelphia that was.”
 
Kalish uses copies of newspapers and photographs Nechemias gave her for resources, some indicating how crowded the streets were and how sanitation was not what it is today.
 
One newspaper advertised a bathhouse for 5 cents, with the added perk of hot water.
 
“It’s hard sometimes to imagine when you see what the city looks like now,” she said.
 
But for Kalish, the importance of the history goes back to the people interested in it.
 
During one tour, “as we walked past Famous [4th Street] Deli on our way to something else, this lady asked if we could stop for just a moment there. She wanted to tell us something.”
 
Standing at the basement door on the sidewalk, “She said, ‘On this spot, my grandfather had his cart with pots and pans and sold his pots and pans here,’ and that’s how he raised his family.” 
 
He had an arrangement with the owner to put his cart in the basement overnight.
 
“It gave me chills just to hear her say this and to think about this person 100 years ago selling his pots and pans there,” she added. “So for some people, the tour is really their history, their family history.” 
 
Contact: rkurland@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737

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