283-Year-Old Congregation Mikveh Israel Remains as Relevant As Ever

From left: In 2019, Eli Gabay and Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Congregation Mikveh Israel look at the remains of the final resting place of Henriette Marx, whose tombstone in Mikveh Israel Cemetery was smashed by a falling tree branch. Photo by Eric Schucht

Jon Marks

So how does the third-oldest synagogue in the country — the one whose nearby cemetery was deemed a national shrine by Congress — remain relevant 283 years after its inception, especially coming out of a pandemic?

Well, maybe because this wasn’t the first time that Congregation Mikveh Israel dealt with a pandemic.

“When the Spanish flu hit, we had to close the doors,” said Rabbi Albert Gabbai, a mainstay for 35 years. “Otherwise, since 1940 we have not missed any Shabbat whether due to a pandemic or snow.”

Of course, in 1740 the Sephardic Jews who’d crossed the Atlantic from Spain and Portugal to set up shop in Philadelphia learned to adapt to their times. So has the current iteration.
“We’re getting better and better with the passing of time,” Gabbai said. “We still have not reached our full potential, but it’s much better than it was before.

“Our Shabbat dinners and lunches never stopped. For Purim, we had regular services, a full meal and a Purim party. And every last Friday of the month, we have a Shabbat dinner with a theme. We’ve had an Italian evening. Coming up, we’ll have them for Spanish and Syrian Jews and others.”

Rabbi Yosef Zarnighian with his wife Marian and their daughter. Courtesy of Rabbi Yosef Zarnighian

Inclusivity has always been a staple at Mikveh Israel, whose founders included Nathan Levy, the man who helped bring the uncracked Liberty Bell to town. Whatever your ethnicity, whatever country you’re from, whatever your Jewish background, you’re welcomed.

“Being Ashkenazic [and] going a to Sephardic synagogue, I wondered what it would be like,” said longtime congregant Sharon Geller, a comedic actress who’s appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and is in the national touring company of “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” “The tunes were not familiar to me — not the tunes I grew up with.

“But what drew me to the congregation and the reason I kept coming back was I really enjoyed the people and the rabbi with his sense of humor. It’s a very friendly, warm, inviting congregation. Just what you might expect from Mediterranean Jews.”

Evoking such feelings is one of Mikveh Israel’s goals. Another is remaining connected with the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community. In that respect, Congregation President Eli Gabay said the pandemic served as an enhancement.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve maintained a strong relationship with other Portuguese synagogues in the world,” Gabay said. “London, Amsterdam and others. We have a strong bond with those original synagogues.”

Yet on a personal level, Gabay felt the impact of COVID-19.

“There were 50 people invited to one bar mitzvah, but only 11 showed up,” he recalled of a December 2020 simcha. “So we drove all the food that was left over to a shelter on Race Street and fed 50 people.

“We couldn’t bring the food into the shelter, so I laid trays of food on the trunk of my car and brought plates. It was a very meaningful bar mitzvah, a special kind of tzedakah, and the bar mitzvah boy, who happened to be my son Noam, was a participant.”

At the same time, Gabay noted how far the congregation has come since then.

“We’ve been able to forge forward with all the programs we had before and add some with the educational aspect of Zoom. That’s enabled us to stay in touch with congregants. But it’s difficult to bring back people to a house of worship. Our numbers are lower. The pandemic got people out of their routines and, as a result of that, they got into different routines.”

The pandemic also put a crimp into Mikveh Israel’s hope of generating enough funds for major repairs at its three cemeteries, which date back centuries. Hoping to raise $50,000 through a GoFundMe page it set up, only $5,600 has come in so far.

“It’s still ongoing,” Gabay said. “We got some money to refurbish, but we’re waiting for someone to see it as an important act of charity to remember our fallen heroes and the first Jews in Philadelphia.”

Mikveh Israel also is in the midst of another transition, as Gabbai prepares to make way for his ultimate successor, Rabbi Yosef Zarnighian.

The new rabbi arrived in February 2021, back when few people were vaccinated and attendance at services was low. Since then, he’s become convinced that he’s come to the
right place.

“I knew to some degree what I was getting myself into,” said Zarnighian, now enjoying fatherhood since the birth of his daughter nine months ago. “What was surprising was experiencing the services and the people in person.

“When you’re taken back in time reliving the melodies, the rituals, the customs as our ancestors practiced, it’s kind of humbling. There are really only a handful of houses of worship in the United States — churches included — that have preserved close to 300 years of tradition.

“For me, that’s something not only humbling, but I think all our members should be proud of what an amazing job they’ve all done to preserve that. It really is a group effort.”

Jon Marks is a freelance writer.


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