Preserving the past

The area's only Orthodox Jewish synagogue has been ordered by the Department of Licenses and Inspections to make repairs.

By Lorraine Gennaro
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 7, 2008

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The inside of South Philly's only existing Orthodox Jewish synagogue looks the same as it did hundreds of years ago.

Looking at the three-story, red-brick edifice with barred windows and a padlocked gate, nobody would know it is a house of worship. Appearances aside, the structure is devoid of any religious markings. Yet at 2015 S. Fourth St. stands the area's oldest and only remaining Orthodox Jewish synagogue. Founded in 1876, Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron-Heysiner-Ezras Israel on Fourth at Emily Street is struggling to make it another year while in need of at least $30,000 in repairs -- this after the congregation spent $10,000 last year to knock down a deteriorating back wall. In 1917, the congregation purchased the building after operating out of another rowhome.

June 19, the Department of Licenses and Inspections issued a second violation stating the rear wall is bulging, cracked, deteriorated with fractures and has missing or loose bricks, L&I Deputy Commissioner Eileen Evans told the Review. The first notice L&I issued the synagogue was Sept. 5, 2007, for the same violations, Evans said, adding both were the result of complaints.

"The majority of our inspections come from complaints," she said.

Despite its appearance, Evans said the structure is not in danger of collapsing, but it is unsafe.

Congregation President Rich Sisman of Elkins Park, who grew up on the same block as the Jewish temple and worshipped there with his family, has been working hard to save what its members call "Little Shul," an ode to the synagogue's size of being long and wide. Sisman, 50, moved out of the neighborhood in '73, but when he discovered the institution was still alive and well a few years ago, he started to attend services with his nephews, and then found himself head of the 20-strong congregation. Most members are from the area, but a handful come from neighboring suburbs, choosing to carry on a family tradition.

"Everything is under way, we just need money to finish the project," he said of the L&I issuance.

After the first notice, Sisman turned to his congregants, who generously opened their checkbooks and gave $10,000 to pay a contractor to tear down the rear wall in late '07.

Attached to the back of the synagogue, which faces Moyamensing Avenue, is a two-story rowhome that was the caretaker's quarters many years ago. As is oftentimes the case in construction, the contractor discovered while tearing down the wall that the damage was far more extensive and the living quarters had to go, too.

The top floor of the synagogue was removed earlier this year, but work has ceased on the ground level because funds have run dry, Sisman said. In addition to taking out the first floor, the back of the synagogue that faces the house needs to be sealed up to the tune of $30,000.

"I was lucky to raise that amount," he said of the $10,000, alluding to the sizeable figure and ruling out the possibility of tapping members for more money.

Last week, per L&I instruction to secure the back of the property, Sisman had a chain-link fence installed.

"We have had some conversations with [the synagogue] and they are trying to bring it up to code," Evans told the Review Friday.

Sisman, with the help of a friend who is in the fundraising field, is turning to foundations and organizations that help Jewish causes. He also is checking into historic certification for the structure.

"I'm hoping to be open again for the High Holidays. That's my goal at this point," Sisman said of Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 29 and Yom Kippur on Oct. 8.

The temple halted Saturday services in November after last year's High Holy Days because Sisman didn't think it safe with the repair work starting. Congregants have stayed home or worshipped elsewhere in the meantime.

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