“I get to be a part of revitalizing a very special piece of South Philly’s history and Jewish history, and that is incredibly rewarding,” Morris Levin said Monday at Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel, 2015 S. Fourth St. “I can’t wait to see how everything unfolds.”
The resident of the 700 block of Christian Street is managing his worship site’s involvement in the Hidden City Philadelphia 2013 Festival. Beginning today and lasting through June 30, he and other congregants will help the public to explore Shivtei Yeshuron’s once-robust role in advancing local Jewish senses of religious reverence and communal affinity while encouraging the continued preservation of the three-story haven.
The orthodox synagogue, one of nine sites participating in the six-week extravaganza, the successor to 2009’s inaugural celebration featuring Shiloh Baptist Church, 2040 Christian St., began as a store following late 19th-century construction. Its eventual attendees had first organized in 1876 at 322 Bainbridge St. and chartered their congregation in ’92, the latter date serving as the midpoint for a massive influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.
“Renting began in 1909 and purchasing came a little later,” Levin, inspecting holy books and original light fixtures, said, noting the space’s transformation from a commercial and residential mixture to a spiritual and residential blend. “For the next few decades, it served as a hub of activity until the World War II-era when many Jews moved, leaving only a few to this day.”
With two years as a member, the Bella Vista inhabitant has sought to advocate for an enhanced appreciation of Shivtei Yeshuron, South Philly’s oldest synagogue, which gained its present name with the ’68 acquisition of Congregation Ezras Israel, formerly at Sixth and Cantrell streets. Having developed a great rapport with the population, including president Richard Sisman, who as a boy flocked to the shul for services, Levin last year approached Hidden City, which lists its mission as helping citizens to “be curious about the city, to fall in love with its remarkable but lesser-known places and to give their time, resources and ideas to realize new features for the places and communities where we work.”
“I had considered the congregation as hidden in the sense that many people lacked knowledge of our operations,” the overseer said, detailing the review process that culminated with its April 10 selection as the lone South Philly destination.
As his ancestors had dutifully explored their heritage, including great-grandparents who lived on the 500 block of Reed Street, he felt he could use Hidden City’s values of accessibility, dialogue, diversity and pragmatism to highlight pride in the past, responsibility for the present and the future of their faith. The middle element involves locating more backers for its upkeep, with benefactors to join volunteers and Councilman at large James Kenney, tomorrow’s honoree for the opening party, who grew up within walking distance of the synagogue and who helped to secure renovation funds in 2007, as sustainers of the beloved spot, which Sisman, a native of the 2000 block of South Fourth Street, thought he had forever parted with upon his 1973 move to Elkins Park.
“I’d forgotten about it until I drove by 15 years ago, and it felt like home still when I resumed attending,” the sixth-year leader said. “When I took over, we had many problems with the structure, but I vowed to take care of them.”
A deteriorated rear wall led to two citations from the Department of Licenses and Inspections in 2007 and ’08, but matters have improved to give Sisman and Levin enough confidence to present their location.
“We’ve certainly come a long way,” Sisman said. “Now comes the task of completing two prominent ventures.”
Levin has loaded the calendar with events he hopes will honor synagogues’ established uses as multifaceted realms for the furthering of social growth. Each week will feature constants, such as tours occurring Thursdays through Sundays; concerts and films addressing topics such as radical music and artistry on select Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; a Sunday speaker series that will address South Philly’s Jewish identity in the 1960s and ’70s and Jewish baseball players, among other topics; and knitting sessions that will yield a sweater that organizers will drape across the facade.
“We really see the festival as a jumping-off point for our long-term plan of promoting the possibilities of this space,” Levin, whose June 16 speaker series entry will address South Philly’s role in the back-to-the-land movement that saw Jews establish a colony in Clarion, Utah, more than a century ago, said. “That’s part of the greatness of our being involved; we obtain satisfaction from exploring ideas and addressing their relevance to contemporary life.”
The father of two girls finds particularly interesting the chance to analyze gender’s role in approaching one’s faith. Seating around 90, the synagogue once adhered to the traditional practice of having females occupy the upstairs portion during services, with the altar visible through the removal of two sections of flooring. It no longer requires parting, more interested in immersion than separation, with spiritual yearning teaming with communal opportunities to craft Sisman’s two-fold wish.
“We have a great interest in increasing our size,” the former resident said, adding his preference for gathering the 10 men, or minyan, required for Saturday services. “Along with building up our options for the second floor, I would love for our growth to be a product of the festival. I really feel we could have an impact on fostering discussions about how to improve places like ours, which have meant so much to so many for so long.”
Sisman, who will assist with this Sunday’s talk on local Jewish identity, commended Levin for being a persistent believer in the sustenance of the expanse that has helped them to chart their tenures as neighborhood advocates.
“I agree it does have a home feel,” Levin said from the third-floor space that served as a bedroom for visiting rabbis. “Our congregation gives people a chance to see a smaller, tactile campus with a great background and numerous aspirations.”
For more information, visit thelittleshul.org or festival.hiddencityphila.org.
Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 124.