The whit or electric screwdrivers and ding of metal on metal filled the chapel at The Gershman Y one recent chilly morning, as a handful of volunteers took apart the room that had, for decades, served as a meeting place for Shabbat and High Holiday services.
When The Gershman Y leaves its historic building on Broad Street — its home for more than 90 years — at the end of November and becomes the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, the groups subleasing space there must also leave. This includes Minyan Sulam Yaakov, a lay-led minyan and the successor to the original Gershman Y Congregation.
Prayerbooks — some from as far back as the 1930s, so old they don’t include a prayer for the modern State of Israel — sat in stacks on tables. The volunteers, regular attendees of Minyan Sulam Yaakov, unscrewed memorial plaques from the walls and arranged them in labeled boxes.
“There’s a lot of history here,” Minyan Sulam Yaakov President Alan Rothenberg said.
The chapel has nearly 700 memorial plaques. Each plaque is inscribed with the name of someone who died, as well as their date of death in both English and Hebrew.
Rothenberg said he expects taking the plaques off the walls and organizing them into boxes will take a few days. Then he’ll put them into storage for about a year and a half. During that time he’ll try to unite the plaques with the families of the individuals named on them.
Rothenberg has put the information from the plaques on Minyan Sulam Yaakov’s website, minyansulamyaakov.org. Under Yartzeit Plaques, people can find an Excel spreadsheet listing the names and death dates of the people on the plaques. The site also includes photos of the plaques.
People who want to contact the minyan about the plaques should reach out at [email protected] or 267-350-6528. Rothenberg wants them to reach out before December 2019.
If the families aren’t found or don’t take them, they will sell the plaques for scrap, unless a better solution emerges.
“We’ve had sacred objects here in this building for all this time,” said volunteer Naomi Geschwind, a former executive director of the Center City Kehillah and former program director for The Gershman Y. “The fact that they’re leaving the building really changes the character of the building.”
No one wants most of the objects in the chapel, Rothenberg said. The minyan plans to have many of the books buried. He might give some of the Torahs to Kulanu, an organization that supports remote Jewish communities. Some of the objects, like the chairs, might go into a yard sale The Gershman Y is holding Oct. 22-25.
But the memorial plaques are a treasure trove of information, and Rothenberg doesn’t want to just throw them away.
Rothenberg noted a few of the names on the plaques. David Zinkoff, the longtime ’76ers announcer, is on one of them. One plaque uniquely has both the birthdate and the death date of Jacob Efter, who was only 13 when he died. There’s a group of four plaques — all with the same last name and death date of March 15, 1943.
“I have no idea what happened,” Rothenberg said, “but you could easily say, ‘Did they die at Auschwitz or something?’ It’s possible.”
Most of the plaques were installed during The Gershman Y Congregation’s time in the chapel, which lasted from 1927 until 2000, when the JCCs of Greater Philadelphia restructured. In the restructuring, the congregation became its own independent organization renting space from The Gershman Y. The group changed its name to Minyan Sulam Yaakov to mark the change.
Eighteen years ago, the University of the Arts bought the building, and The Gershman Y had a rent-free arrangement for about 15 years. With the lease ending in November, the university could not extend an offer for The Gershman Y to stay, said Kristen Evans, the executive managing director of the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival — previously known as The Gershman Y.
A recent article from The Philadelphia Inquirer detailed the university’s plans for the building. The university wants to turn it into a space where students can mingle, with a lobby, dance venue, fitness center and more.
In May, Rothenberg learned that the minyan would need to move by the end of November. He set about trying to figure out what to do with plaques, calling a few rabbis and some friends involved with Jewish genealogical work.
The Jewish Genealogical Society wanted the information on the plaques but not the plaques themselves. Rabbis told him that no congregation would take them. Some suggested he should just sell them for scrap.
Rothenberg wants to give the plaques to their families if he can. The records of the plaques and information on who paid for them have mostly been lost, so he is trying to reach out online and through advertising.
So far, a few people have inquired about the plaques, but there are still well more than 600 that need homes.
As the volunteers made progress going through the objects in the chapel, Evans stepped into the room to check on them.
“It’s very sad for us that we’re even taking the plaques down,” she said. “We wanted to make sure it was done in, not only a strategic way, but also a respectful way.”
As for Minyan Sulam Yaakov, it doesn’t know where it’s headed next, but plans to take a few objects from The Gershman Y, including the Torah stands and two Torah scrolls.
“Part of the idea of a lay-led minyan is you’re portable, you’re minimalist,” Rothenberg said. “Part of the idea is we don’t want a big edifice; we don’t want a building. We don’t want that kind of infrastructure to have to deal with. We don’t want that expense to have to deal with. We just want a place to have services.”
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