There was so much that made the first Kabbalat Shabbat service on July 19 at the South Philadelphia Shtiebel a special affair.
That it was a joyous, foot-stomping, siddur-tapping, Carlebach-tuned service, packed into a storefront across the street from Marra’s, made it special. That many of those who had designed, painted, built or otherwise contributed to the Shtiebel’s creation sat among the 80 or so worshippers made it special. That the Orthodox rabbanit leading it all, Hadas “Dasi” Fruchter, is of an uncommon energy and is right here in Philadelphia made it special.
Even that it was an oasis of air conditioning and cold water on an evening where the heat index reached past 100 degrees made it special.
But as Fruchter said in her address to those who had assembled, it was also totally commonplace. It was only last millennium, she noted, that South Philadelphia was crammed with synagogues — well over 100, at one point — and the city was bursting with recent immigrants. That a new synagogue has sprouted up on East Passyunk Avenue, then, is both special and not without precedent.
Services began around 7:30 p.m., as those who braved the heat returned to their seats after a sip of water and a tasteful dab with a paper towel. Each side of the mechitza — which alternated between typical wooden dividers and tall, reedy plants — was filled with rows of worshippers.
Fruchter estimated that she’s been at 120 one-on-one meetings since she began the process of creating the Shtiebel, and many of those who showed up for services were there as a result. In her words, she saw those relationships “turn into a community, within a moment.”
There was also a delegation from her last synagogue in Potomac, Maryland, along with some people who walked in off the street. The Potomac group brought some ArtScroll siddurim for mincha and ma’ariv, and for Kabbalat Shabbat the Shtiebel printed some paper copies of the prayers.
The prayer room, as Fruchter said afterward, may have already proven too small for the interest that was shown, as a few attendees were without chairs in the back. The walls were finished in the way a trendy apartment might be — some were painted in a light purple, while another still has some finishing to be done, evidenced by the hastily scribbled little markings and figures on some exposed wood. Toward the front, a small ramp led into the next room, where small children were free to be small children, and where future nonprayer events will take place.
Over the next 70 minutes or so, the Shtiebel was, for lack of a better term, rockin’. There was enthusiastic singing and polite dancing — perhaps, with a little more room, the latter could be undertaken with the energy of the former. Fruchter spoke, thanking all who made the evening a reality; yasher koachs were aplenty. She polled the crowd on the way they pronounced “Passyunk,” and whether they lived within four blocks of the Shtiebel. Like any good Jewish clergy member, she connected the evening to the week’s parshah. Balaam tries to curse the Jews, but the words that come out are blessings — you can figure it out from there.
“My biggest reflection was that I kind of had a hard time believing that it was the first time that that group of people was coming together to sing,” Fruchter said the following week. “It felt very cohesive.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0740