In a South Philadelphia neighborhood filled with renovated rowhouses, Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel looks like it’s out of another era.
Its brick is weathered and discolored in certain areas. The blue text above the door displaying the synagogue name is faded. An opening of the door and a step inside will leave you with the distinct waft of old book pages, as one congregant, Ariel Kamen, describes it. And as you walk around the bottom floor and then the top, you will see yahrzeit memorials dating to the first half of the 20th century, handcrafted Judaica pieces and two columns of pews facing a bimah in the center of a living room.
Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel, or the “Little Shul,” as it’s known online and among members, looks like it’s out of another era because it is. It dates to the late 1800s when droves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were settling down in South Philly. Among the more than 150 little shuls that emerged in that period, it is the only one left.
The 15-25 members who remain gather once a month for a Shabbat morning service and kiddush.
“As long as we have a minyan, I’m happy,” said Richard Sisman, the synagogue’s president. “Because it means the work we’ve put in is worthwhile.”
The we that Sisman refers to is a group of Jews from every generation who feel a connection to their religion.
Sisman, 65, grew up at the synagogue and returned as an adult after driving by one day, noticing that the doors were open, walking in and finding a service. He describes his house growing up as “pretty secular.” His family celebrated the holidays but did not keep kosher. As he put it, they were “spiritual, not observant.”
It’s an approach that Sisman pretty much maintains. But he’s committed to keeping the Little Shul alive. It is the president, after all, who organizes payments for the minimal expenses on the synagogue’s paid-off building.
“You do whatever you have to do not to let a synagogue close. It’s just in my bones,” he said.
David Berg, a Mount Airy resident, also grew up at the Little Shul. His family history at the synagogue goes back to the early 1930s. While he did not raise his daughter at the old rowhome, he did host her bat mitzvah here in 2001. Today, Berg is not that religious, but he still sits on the board at the Little Shul and comes monthly for Shabbat.
“It served a place for immigrants who were strangers in a strange world to come to and find the people from their own communities,” Berg said.
Dave Kalniz did not grow up at the Little Shul, but he has been going for 35 years. He lived in the neighborhood when his father died, and he walked over on Friday and Saturday that week to say kaddish, and just keeps coming back.
Kalniz grew up Orthodox and, while he tries to observe the Sabbath today, he only avoids activities on Shabbos if he does not have to do them. But his Orthodox life experience makes him well-suited to leading services at the Little Shul, a role he fills admirably, according to Sisman.
“It’s haimishe. It’s a good community gathering,” Kalniz said.
Daniel and Irene Verbit, 42 and 38, respectively, are younger than Sisman, Berg and Kalniz. But like those older congregants, they feel their religion is important. Daniel Verbit grew up Conservative and Irene Verbit’s mother found refuge in a synagogue in New York City after the family emigrated from the Soviet Union.
The Verbits enjoyed their first date at the Little Shul in 2019 on the morning after they met at a Shabbat dinner at the Old City Jewish Arts Center. They’ve been coming back ever since.
“It’s something I was raised with,” Daniel Verbit said.
“It’s being part of the Jewish community,” Irene Verbit added.
Kamen, who mentioned the old book smell, is the youngest congregant at 23. After having a bat mitzvah in her youth in Manalapan, New Jersey, she reconnected with her Judaism in 2020. Now a nurse who lives in West Philadelphia, Kamen likes to study the weekly parshah on Saturday mornings.
In January, she Googled “oldest shul in Philly,” and the Little Shul came up. She’s gone for six straight months. She might even want to clean up the synagogue’s library at some point.
“For it to be a place where people who are interested in seeing these historical things can come and look and feel and inquire about things that they like,” Kamen said.