South Philadelphia Shtiebel Moves on From Prayer Space, Looks Ahead

A recent prayer service organized by the South Philadelphia Shtiebel; such services, Fruchter said, soften the blow of leaving the Passyunk Avenue location | Photo by Dasi Fruchter

“How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!” begins Eicha, read aloud by Jews all over the world on Tisha B’Av on July 29. “How is she become as a widow!”

In Philadelphia, Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter recited those words from a bare storefront on Passyunk Avenue straight into a camera for 70 or so viewers. Via Zoom, congregants of the South Philadelphia Shtiebel and others gathered not only to mourn the loss of the Second Temple, but a loss of another kind: Just a few days earlier, Fruchter announced that the Shtiebel would be leaving its prayer space, about one year after opening.

It’s not the end of the world, Fruchter said — it was simple financial sense for the small congregation, which doesn’t have plans to meet in a small indoor space any time soon. “Heartbreaking” as it is, Fruchter said, the congregation had already outgrown the space. 

“I’m really grateful that we were able to make a move,” she said. 

In the meantime, congregants will continue daily prayer and learning sessions, with the occasional outdoor, socially distanced event at nearby Saints John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School. 

On the Wednesday of Tisha B’Av, those who virtually attended the reading of Eicha watched as Fruchter and Jacob Zieper, another congregant, recited the five chapters and davened Maariv. Fruchter spoke of the congregation’s “exile” from its holy space; “Is there,” she asked, “some sort of redemptive possibility in distance?” On mute, congregants considered the question.

At the conclusion of the service, Fruchter sang a niggun as she removed the mezzuzot from the doorways, the last thing to go from the Shtiebel. The rest had been carefully taken away by volunteers just hours earlier, leaving the walls as bare as the day the Shtiebel moved in. 

“Tisha B’av is about the loss of a sacred space, and while the Shtiebel is continuing to exist, it does have a feeling in a way that we’re parting from a specific physical place that has held communal meaning,” said Zieper, a school teacher in South Philadelphia. 

About a year prior to vacating the space, the South Philadelphia Shtiebel was celebrating its first Kabbalat Shabbat, attended by about 100 people on a day that was about 100 degrees. Over the course of the year, the congregation grew as the Shtiebel offered more classes and created greater opportunity for engagement. Much of it was centered at the physical space. 

Frustrating as it is to lose the space, Fruchter said, it simply didn’t make sense to keep paying rent. “This,” she said, “is not going anywhere. COVID-19 is here.”

Indeed, the pandemic has left its mark on the congregation. But it’s not all bad; on the contrary, the frequency with which the Shtiebel offers classes and prayer services has brought in new congregants much more quickly than Fruchter anticipated. Offering classes on Daf Yomi and Pirkei Avot, along with the occasional lecture, has enticed many that may have once wished to stay at home. Now, they can do both. 

The Shtiebel has also held a few outdoor services at Saints John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School, a practice that Fruchter hopes to continue as the pandemic endures. 

“We commit,” she said, “to continuing to doing what we do well, which is helping people connect and helping people bring love into the world, and connect with Torah and Judaism.”

And though the Shtiebel’s Passyunk Avenue space will no longer belong to the Shtiebel, it will belong to some “Shtieblers,” as Fruchter calls them.

Orrin Leeb and Bryan Kravitz, co-owners of Philly Typewriter, will take over the space within a year. Their store, which sells and repairs typewriters, is now on the corner of Passyunk Avenue and Dickinson Street, just a few blocks away from the Shtiebel. 

Kravitz, who was married to his wife by Fruchter, said that he and Leeb were looking around for a new space when Fruchter reached out to them with a proposal a few weeks ago. “It was very, very, very fortuitous this all happened,” Kravitz said. It’s “a perfect move, for us,” Leeb added.

To commemorate the passing over of the property, Fruchter davened at a distance from Leeb, who gifted her with a copy of Psalm 121, created with a Yiddish typewriter. 

“Behold,” it reads. “He that keepeth Israel doth neither slumber nor sleep.”; 215-832-0740


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