Although he was raised Catholic, Sean Kelley’s favorite place in Eastern State Penitentiary is the synagogue.
“A synagogue in a prison, I know,” the prison’s senior vice president and director of interpretation and public programming said with a laugh.
He added that there are now only about six prison sanctuaries exclusively for Jewish worship in the United States. Eastern State, which opened in 1829 and is now a tourist attraction, is considered to have the first prison synagogue in the country.
Along with Al Capone’s cell and an installation on today’s prison system, the prison’s website lists its historic synagogue as a selected exhibit. The featured displays fuel a busy summer season, bringing visitors from around the nation. Last year, the prison had 239,000 visitors, Kelley said.
Many of those guests are not Jewish, Kelley acknowledged.
“We designed the exhibit so non-Jews could enjoy it too. There’s very little Hebrew,” he explained, but the attractions expose visitors to Judaism without overwhelming them.
A key example, he noted, adorns the wall of the adjacent synagogue museum, where a “Mitzvah Wall” station provides note cards for visitors to trade stories of mitzvot and learn about the Jewish value.
Kelley started at Eastern State in 1995 as one of the first employees of the museum.
“When I first came back here, I found this room that looked a lot like a synagogue,” he said.
Uncertain that his Catholic upbringing would allow him to correctly identify a synagogue, he enlisted a cantor friend for help. At the sight of the faded Star of David on the doorway, the cantor immediately agreed it was a synagogue, Kelley recalled.
Although the prison opened in 1994 for public tours, the synagogue remained in ruins until Jewish donors funded its restoration in 2009.
It is almost an exact replica of the prison’s 20th century synagogue, Kelley said.
“We wanted people to experience the room as the Jewish prisoners did,” which is why all plaques and information about the synagogue are housed in an exhibit next door, in a converted work room, he said.
He noted that at the pinnacle of its 142-year operation, the prison held about 1,800 prisoners, with the Jewish population reaching roughly 80 inmates in the 1930s. Despite the numbers, relatively little was recorded about Jewish prisoners, with articles instead focusing on notable Jewish visitors to the prison and Jewish donors.
Among Jewish supporters of the prison, Alfred W. Fleisher, after whom prisoners dedicated the sanctuary, is remembered as the crusader for Jewish inmates. Fleisher served as president of the prison board of trustees and urged the establishment of the synagogue.
In 1924, the synagogue opened after the state permitted the conversion of walled-in exercise yards into an enclosed chapel. Funded by Jewish donors assembled primarily by Fleisher, it remained in use until the prison’s closure in 1971.
Prior to the synagogue’s construction, Jewish life existed in small numbers at the prison. Records show a rabbi visiting Jewish inmates as early as 1837, and men like Fleisher would regularly celebrate Jewish holidays with the prisoners.
Kelley added that after 1928, the prisoners would observe Sukkot by constructing a sukkah out of branches and placing them in the synagogue’s ceiling windows.
While developing the materials for the synagogue exhibit, Kelley hoped to include “feel-good stories.” However, he soon discovered most prisoners at Eastern State, including Jews, committed heinous crimes.
“I was looking for stories of men who made a mistake, but may not have been terrible people. You know, men having a religious experience,” Kelley said.
Instead, he unveiled serious criminal activity of the early 20th century. Notable Jewish prisoners were Morris Bolber, a member of the Philadelphia arsenic ring, and Sheldon Glasshofer, a serial rapist.
A brief in the April 26, 1929 issue of the Jewish Exponent corroborated the era’s heightened state of Jewish crime. An unnamed author noted, “That the Jewish population at a penal institution should be large enough to require a house of worship is a matter that should call forth sad reflections on the part of the leaders of the community.”
Although organized Jewish crime has all but disappeared today, the Jewish prison population still hovers in the low thousands nationally, according to the Aleph Institute, an organization that provides support for more than 4,000 Jewish inmates and their families.
Kelley said penitentiary exhibit “Prison Today” encourages visitors to wrestle with the nature of incarceration in modern America.
“Back then, people were put in prison for serious reasons. The prison population has increased a lot now.”
He added the goal of Eastern State, including the synagogue exhibit, centers on “populating the space,” by showing prisoners as multifaceted individuals.
“They’re people,” he said. “They’re still people.”