Goodbye, Gershman Y: Arts Org to Move, Change its Name

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The Gershman Y is leaving its longtime home at 401-11 S. Broad St. | Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia

When musician Mike Brenner was growing up in Center City in the late ’70s and early ’80s, his dad took him to the Y at 401 S. Broad St. to work out and play basketball.

“He knew a lot of people of his generation who would also go to the Y,” Brenner said. Afterward, the two would sometimes go for dinner at the South Philly restaurant Dante & Luigi’s.

“I can still taste the red sauce,” he said.

Back then, the location was a branch of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia. By next year, Jewish life at the historic location will have effectively come to an end.

Jenny Laden, assistant director of communications and stewardship at Penn Design, also has sense memories connected to the Y: “I can still smell the pool,” she said.

Laden’s grade school classmate, Kathyanne Cohen, senior VP of government and public affairs at Moody’s in Washington, D.C., remembers the Y as “a bastion of calm amid a city swept up in ’70s swingyness,” while her writer-therapist sister, Elisabeth LaMotte, recalls some unconventional Hebrew school classes: “Our teacher had [us] play El Al and pretend to be flight attendants, walking around the class saying, ‘Coffee, tea or milk, please?’”

Attorney Lionel Artom-Ginzburg remembers “a plethora of 60-year-old Jewish men who could hit 50 or 60 free throws in a row underhanded.”

Jewish and non-Jewish Philadelphians of all ages have their own quirky memories of the Young Men’s & Young Women’s Hebrew Association, known colloquially as the Gershman Y. From Torah dedications and Israeli folk dancing, Isaac Bashevis Singer to Leonard Nimoy, Latkepalooza and Moo Shu Jew to “many a hilarious schvitz in the men’s exec locker room,” as writer Stephen Fried put it, the building is replete with Jewish cultural history.

All that is about to change.

Kathyanne Cohen (left) and sister Elisabeth LaMotte join their mother, SaraKay Smullens, at the Gershman Y to celebrate Purim in the 1970s. | Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia

Last week, The Gershman Y, the arts and culture nonprofit that is virtually synonymous with its Broad Street home, announced it is leaving the building and retooling its mission. It will become the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival and focus exclusively on film-related programming.

The change means that the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame will also need to vacate. The building, funded by Albert M. Greenfield, the Lit brothers, Samuel S. Fleisher and other Jewish luminaries, was hailed at the time of its completion in 1928 as the largest Jewish institutional building of its kind in the country.

It all represents a sea change for The Gershman Y, an organization that has gone through many evolutions, including a split from the JCCs in 2009. In the last couple of years, The Gershman Y featured some of its most original and exciting programming to date, including a sold-out Velvet Underground tribute performed by Yo La Tengo. This year has seen the launch of the author series Bagel Bites and the workshop “Dancing With a Yiddish Accent,” while lunch-and-learn sessions have continued to examine Jewish themes.

Such programming continued apace even after major staff changes, including the retirement of Gershman’s executive director Maxine Gaiber in March and the departure of director of development Sahar Oz in April.

Kristen Evans, who’s been with the organization for 11 years, has been guiding the ship since Gaiber’s departure, as acting executive director and now as GPJFF managing director.

“There is definitely a sadness in leaving the building,” she said. “There’s a rich history and legacy here at the Y and it does resonate on an extremely personal level with many of the staff, board and patrons. I’ve heard some really amazing stories of how people have connected at the Y — they met their spouse, they sent their kids to preschool.”

The building, which was added to Philadelphia’s Historic Register last year partly because of its Jewish cultural import, has been owned by the University of the Arts since 2000.

“Our lease is up in December, which precipitated a conversation with regards to what kind of organization we wanted to have moving forward,” Gershman Y board president Jacob Cohen said. “We felt the Jewish Film Festival was elite programming, and that moving forward the best way to go would be to double-down on that … rather than have such a wide focus.”

The decision was based on a number of factors, Evans said: “It’s sustainability, it’s relevance, it’s how to best serve the community.”

The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival has been hugely successful for the Gershman Y, drawing capacity crowds to venues across the region. That geographical spread will continue, as will the array of complementary programming, said Cohen.

“We’re not just going to be a movie theater that operates out of different venues,” he said. “We’re going to continue to have our conversations with directors, screenwriters and actors; panel discussions; film-and-food pairing events; and Film Connect, which is going to be a series where musicians and vocalists perform in conjunction with film presentations.”

Both Cohen and Evans conceded that the change will result in what they referred to as “restructuring.” When asked if current Gershman staffers would lose their jobs, Evans said, “I’d rather not answer that question. Obviously, our budget is going to reflect the programming that we’re going to be doing in the future. Certainly, the staffing needs are going to be filled based off of our programming.”

Cohen said two GPJFF employees are a given: Evans and Olivia Antsis, the director of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, whose new title will be executive artistic director. As for the others, “we’re in the process of determining the correct employee mix for the new organization.”

A location for the GPJFF is also up in the air, but Cohen said they’re considering several options. Wherever they land, it will be a change from a building that was such a part of the organization’s branding.

Stephen Frishberg, chair of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, is also thinking about moving beyond Broad Street. The Hall of Fame plans to expand its web presence as well as find a new physical location.

“We are in serious discussions with two organizations,” he said, “one in Society Hill and one in a suburb of Philadelphia. I’m sad about leaving the building. … It’s a great location and we’ve had a wonderful relationship with The Gershman Y.”

As for the future of the building, University of the Arts spokesman Paul Healy said, “While we are still in the conceptual stage, we anticipate that we will undertake some renovations to the interior to create a social and community space for our students, something our campus currently lacks. We also are initially planning to centralize all student-related services under one roof.”

In 1986, Jewish Exponent reporter Robert Leiter wrote that the building was “regarded by Philadelphia’s non-Jewish community as a central Jewish address.” Leiter quoted then-JCC president Samuel N. Rabinowitz, who provided a salient example: “The Saturday night of the Rabin assassination, all the media descended on the Gershman because they wanted to find out how people felt, and they knew they’d find Jews there. It is the Jewish center of Philadelphia.”

Leaving that Jewish center behind, Cohen acknowledged, is significant: “It is very much the end of an era.”  

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1 COMMENT

  1. When Akiba Hebrew Academy was founded in 1946 (it’s now the Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr), its first classes were held in the Broad Street Y.

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