It’s a Saturday morning in South Philadelphia. Inside the blue building on West Moyamensing Avenue, seven or eight Jews are congregating for a Shabbat service. Counting the four or five people on Zoom, there’s enough for a minyan.
In the front of the room at the bimah, Joe Costin, 37, leads the service. Rabbi Gail Glicksman guides members in prayers for health, peace and the new month. Costin’s father, Murray Costin, comes up to read from the Torah. Then Costin’s wife, Felicia Costin, walks up to read a summary of what the portion was about.
Different members stroll forward to recite aliyah portions. Mike Cutler, a longtime congregant, carries the Torah around so everybody can tap it with their prayer books.
After the service, “my mother puts out a very nice spread,” Joe Costin said. Nancy Costin’s kiddush lunch includes bagels, lox, whitefish and herring. Or “all the good stuff,” as her son puts it. And everybody kibbitzes for a while.
But then, the lunch ends and they walk out. Until next week at Young People’s Congregation Shari-Eli.
“It is a lay-led service and it’s very participatory,” Glicksman said.
The congregants at the Young People’s Congregation are not young anymore. The age range extends from Joe Costin’s year-old son Ryden to 94-year-old Bernie Serota. Some members are in their 30s. Most are 50 or older.
YPC Shari-Eli started in 1952 when a group of young Jews broke off from an Orthodox synagogue in South Philadelphia, according to ypcsharieli.mailchimpsites.com. It became a rowhome synagogue like so many others there at the time. In the 1950s and ‘60s, YPC Shari-Eli had Shabbat services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, a Sunday school, a men’s club and a women’s club. A part-time rabbi, Israel Wolmark, served from 1973 to 2003.
Murray and Nancy Costin were married there. Joe Costin has been a member for life. He celebrated his bar mitzvah there in 1999. But while the Costins remained in South Philadelphia, their Jewish neighbors left. And as other rowhome synagogues closed, YPC’s doors stayed open.
As Murray Costin explained in a 2017 Jewish Exponent article, the synagogue always forms a minyan. Before the pandemic, that minyan was as many as 14 or 15 people on Saturdays. But during COVID, the number dropped.
Glicksman likes to emphasize that the synagogue embraced Zoom during this period, and it still does. But while a Zoom can also be a good reason not to come to the sanctuary, it does keep YPC true to Murray’s word. The minyan is there.
Even during the darkest days of lockdown, Joe Costin and his family would go into the empty sanctuary and take out the Torah. That way everybody could see it from the Zoom gathering. And they would understand that they were still in synagogue.
“It’s worthwhile to keep it open,” Murray Costin said.
The building on West Moyamensing Avenue is paid off, according to Joe Costin. The only bills are to keep the lights on and upgrade and maintain the structure. Recently, the roof was redone. On another occasion, graffiti was removed and new paint added.
There are no dues. The synagogue runs on donations. And since it still attracts a High Holiday crowd of more than 60 people, it can ask on the holiest of days and receive what it needs. Donations also come in throughout the year.
“A lot of people are generous with their donations without even us telling them how much to give,” Joe Costin said. “We’re blessed.”
The Costins said in 2017 that they hoped that the synagogue could return to its former status as a multifaceted institution. They wanted to see Friday night services again and a Sunday school. But since then, YPC Shari-Eli has lost in-person Shabbat goers.
Costin is raising his family in South Philadelphia, and he still hopes that “the future holds more Jewish people coming to Philadelphia.” He thinks the Zoom and in-person options could help attract young families. He is also starting to take Ryden to more Jewish activities in the city.
“And I’m going to talk up the synagogue. That would be more people my age,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get some that way and then friends of friends. They can tell other people. Things like that.”