Last South Philadelphia Conservative Synagogue Continues to Survive

The doors to YPC Shari-Eli with its name outlined in sculptures | Marissa Stern

YPC Shari-Eli may not have held a large event since service leader Joe Costin’s 1999 Bar Mitzvah, but you can still trust that every Saturday, its doors will be open for Shabbat services at 8:30 a.m.

The synagogue has been around since 1952, though its predecessor was around long before then, maybe as far back as 1928.

It got its start when a group of young congregants at a nearby synagogue, Shaari Eliohu, broke away to form what became YPC Shari-Eli, a Conservative synagogue — a contrast to the many Orthodox synagogues that used to populate the once-heavily Jewish neighborhood. Israel Wolmark became the congregation’s part-time rabbi in 1973 and served for approximately 30 years.

The building at the corner of Franklin Street and Moyamensing Avenue that houses the synagogue today — its exterior painted blue with a modest sign signaling its name — formerly housed Shaare Torah, an Orthodox synagogue back around 1928. The congregants changed the interior to fit their needs, eliminating the format typical of an Orthodox congregation, such as the separate women’s balcony upstairs.

“They came and fixed all this up, done by hand by all the congregants in 1950,” said Executive Director Murray Costin, sitting in the open room on the second floor where congregants gather after Shabbat services for a “magnificent” bagels, lox and whitefish spread prepared by his wife, Nancy. They were married at the synagogue.

Inside the sanctuary of YPC Shari-Eli. | Marissa Stern

Men and women now gather together in the chapel, a narrow space with two rows of benches on either side facing the bimah, where two pulpits stand on either side of the ark.

The number of those who gather, however, has decreased quite a bit since the synagogue’s beginnings, and the “young” in Young People’s Congregation may have also changed. But, Murray Costin proudly notes, they always have a minyan.

The synagogue is open every Saturday morning for services and every year for the High Holidays. They advertise in The South Philly Review around the holidays to let people know they are open.

For High Holiday services, they bring in Rabbi Gail Glicksman, who used to be with Adath Shalom, where Murray Costin had his Bar Mitzvah. Shabbat services are lay-led by Joe Costin, part of the father-son team leading the synagogue. He said everyone who comes to services plays a role.

“We start services on Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m., which is a little early for people,” he admitted, “but that’s always been the time and what I tell them, you get a jump-start on your day. … I lead the services, my father will read the Torah and, like I said, we incorporate everybody so people will come up for aliyahs. We read in English a summary of what we read in the Torah each week, so we have somebody read that. Everybody has a part. It’s a small congregation, it’s not that hard. And they like it.”

Bernie Serota, a dedicated “member” of the synagogue whom Joe Costin couldn’t recall missing a service, also reads Torah during services sometimes and has done some maintenance for the synagogue. He said that by keeping the synagogue alive, they also show that they “keep the Jewish tradition alive here.”

From left: Joe Costin, Bernie Serota, Murray Costin. | Marissa Stern

Hidden City Philadelphia noted that South Philly was once “one of the largest and most densely populated Jewish communities in America.” Many Jewish buildings and facilities were left casualties of the changing neighborhood, like the Stiffel Senior Center, which was located at the southeast corner of Marshall and Porter streets and offered Hebrew classes. It closed in 2011.

In its early iteration, YPC Shari-Eli had services on Friday nights as well and had a Sunday school program, which Murray Costin attended while growing up nearby. “South Philly born-and-raised” Costin still lives nearby.

There was a men’s club and a women’s auxiliary club as well when it was thriving in the ’50s and ’60s, he added.

The changing neighborhood makes keeping the synagogue open even more important, Joe Costin noted.

“I remember when I was little, there were still some Jewish businesses around,” he recalled, “so I grew up around some Jewish stuff and just to see that now there’s very little left, it’s still important to keep what we have going.”

With its current model, the synagogue survives on donations. There are no membership dues, Joe Costin said, and they get most donations around the High Holidays.

The number of congregants may have dwindled, but through Facebook or other means, they always form a minyan as people find out about them.

“We had seven [people] one time, we didn’t know whether we wanted to open or not,” Murray Costin recalled, “and the next thing you know four people came. They just came because they knew we were open somehow.

“So we’re here every Saturday, come heck or high water.”

They’ve worked with other synagogues that struggle to form minyans or get stuck for services, he added.

The exterior of YPC Shari-Eli | Marissa Stern

They hope the synagogue can someday return to the height of its success, with Friday night services and a school. But in the meantime, the community and connections it provides makes it worthwhile.

“Just the fact that we’re surviving makes it special,” Joe Costin said, noting that the people who come — usually around 12 or 14 on a given Saturday — are like family to him. “Knowing that everybody’s moved away or passed away, we’re still here and made it through and we’re going to continue to make it through.”

“The door is open and people are cordially invited and we’d like them to come,” Serota added.

For Murray Costin, it’s also a way of preserving a piece of Jewish history in a place where there’s not much left.

“Nobody wants to see a Jewish community fall apart,” he said.

“Especially in a place that used to be all Jewish, basically,” Joe Costin added.

“We’re the only ones left,” Murray Costin continued, “so we keep doing it.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740



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