After becoming one of the first female rabbis in the Orthodox denomination, Dasi Fruchter chose South Philadelphia as the place to build her congregation. She met with Jewish residents of the area for a year before opening the South Philadelphia Shtiebel, with backing from Start-Up Shul and Hillel International, in July 2019.
Rabbanit Fruchter, as she likes to call herself, welcomed “80 or so worshippers” into the synagogue’s storefront home on East Passyunk Avenue for the community’s first Shabbat service, according to a Jewish Exponent article. The same article described the evening as a “joyous, foot-stomping service.” But the moment ended less than a year later with the arrival of COVID-19.
Fruchter got COVID herself and the Shtiebel, like other shuls, had to find creative ways to survive. But survive it did.
The rabbanit, who came to Philadelphia from Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Maryland, remains in South Philadelphia, and now she’s married and a homeowner. Her synagogue remains here, too, only in a rented commercial space instead of a storefront. But with more than 100 Shabbat worshippers each week, it has grown since that inaugural Sabbath.
“It’s going great,” Fruchter said.
When COVID hit, Shtiebel regulars could no longer gather on Shabbat. Halachic rules do not allow for an online gathering on the Sabbath. Fruchter and her congregants had to wait out those early weeks apart until they could assemble again in a field at a six-foot distance while wearing masks.
As time marched on though, members got closer. They gathered in a theater, a Catholic school parking lot and a bocce court. Eventually, they took their masks off and stood together. By the High Holidays in 2021, almost 150 Shtiebel regulars congregated on that bocce court. They said their prayers and the noise floated “up to the heavens,” Fruchter said.
But even while synagogue members could not convene for Shabbat, the shul was “never closed,” Fruchter said. She taught a daily Talmud class online. She hosted Kaddish services for congregants or family members of congregants. She delivered packages and made phone calls.
“I was trying to support people who were treading water,” the rabbi said.
During the pandemic, some people left South Philadelphia Shtiebel. But many of those original members stayed. And many more, who were “hungry for something,” as Fruchter put it, arrived. The Shtiebel dropped to about 30 regulars during the initial stage of COVID before growing back to 50-75 members. After securing the new space on Juniper Street, the Shtiebel grew again.
“I believe very strongly in physical space and what that does for our sense of rootedness and community,” Fruchter said. “There is something about having a place.”
The 33-year-old, female, Orthodox rabbi has her place, and it is allowing her to give members theirs. As a result, the base is now big enough to help support the organization. But it remains “too fiscally young, probably, to own,” the rabbi said.
The South Philadelphia Shtiebel receives one-third of its funding from local support, with the rest coming from outside grants and major gifts, according to Fruchter. Her goal for year five is to “shift more to local support,” she said.
This past Shabbat, there was a room for kids 0-3, and another room for kids 5-7 to have a parsha discussion. During the Kiddush lunch, a group of congregants older than 50 was having an “intense parsha discussion,” as Fruchter described it, with a group of members “in the younger professional part of their lives.”
Most of the members, as is customary in Orthodox communities, live within a mile of the synagogue so they can walk. But people also come from Fairmount, the Main Line and Wilmington, Delaware. There are no schools in the synagogue yet, but Fruchter is now thinking about a 30-year plan. For the first time since March 2020, she feels like she has time to plan.
“The most interesting thing is that in the last month or so, I decided that we need one,” she said.
Fruchter met her husband, Daniel Krupka, a software engineer, at a Center City Kehillah event four years ago. They got married and bought a house in the past year.
“This is my place. I love it,” she said.