The Kiev-Tcherkass Beneficial Association at Sixth and McClellan Streets, one of the few remnants of what was once one of the largest and most densely populated Jewish communities in America, is for sale and faces an uncertain future, with some of its windows boarded up and others open to the elements.
What remains of Philadelphia’s Yiddish-speaking “Jewish Quarter,” with a street life as rich and self-sustaining as the better understood Lower East Side in New York, are concentrated along this stretch of Sixth Street bounded by Tasker Street and Oregon Avenue. Like Kiev-Tcherkass, the other Jewish community buildings that adorn this stretch, including large purpose-built synagogues, row house shuls, and community centers, are barely distinguishable from the rest of the area’s building stock. Only subtle Hebrew signage and inconspicuous Judaic symbols set them apart.
Many of the synagogues and shuls, particularly those were not demolished upon closure, have been adapted to accommodate congregations of other faiths or even other uses. For instance, Adath Shalom now houses Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple, the city’s largest Buddhist temple, and Atereth Israel now contains apartments. The civic buildings have not fared as well. A victim of long-term neglect, the Kiev-Tcherkass Beneficial Association is vacant and unsecured. A victim of downsizing, the Stiffel Senior Center is closed and for sale.
Kiev-Tcherkass was founded in 1904 by a group of immigrants from northern Ukraine. The association, a fairly typical landsmanschaften, helped immigrants from the same area connect to relatives, locate housing, and secure jobs. It also offered health and death benefits comparable to those being issued by formal insurance companies. After 25 years of operation, the association evolved into a distinct congregation. Very few buildings of this kind survive.
The Stiffel Senior Center, located at the southeast corner of Marshall and Porters Streets, opened in 1928. Originally Jewish Education Center No. 2, it provided free Hebrew classes and recreational activities. In the late 1960s, the center began to tailor its programming to elderly individuals. Although it remained vital to its constantly changing community, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia closed the facility in July 2011, citing unmanageable operation and maintenance costs.
Beginning about 1881, tens of thousands of Jewish peasants fleeing czarist pogroms in southern Russia and the Pale of Settlement migrated to South Philadelphia between South and Catherine Streets. (A much more established and assimilated German Jewish community had existed in Philadelphia since the mid-19th century.) A second wave of Jewish immigrants from northern Ukraine arrived before World War I, pushing the center of Jewish South Philly below Snyder Avenue. The new immigrants built row house shuls, larger synagogues, cigar and textile factories, theaters, restaurants, socialist and anarchist libraries, and civic buildings, and they formed labor organizations, mutual aid societies, and orphan asylums. The community endured into the 1980s.
Despite the fact that these sites relay a key chapter of the city’s rich cultural history–the chapter in which South Philadelphia was predominantly Jewish–they are unacknowledged by Philadelphia’s Jewish community. According to Rakhmiel Peltz, director of the Judaic studies program at Drexel University, Philadelphia’s organized Jewish community, unlike its counterparts in other cities, is out of touch with its more recent history. “In general, the Jewish community doesn’t know that it’s connected to South Philadelphia.”
Nor is the Jewish experience often included in the narrative of South Philly, one of America’s great polyglots we’ve simplified into a giant Little Italy.
The sites have evaded the preservation community as well, (although the Stiffel Center did receive some attention when it was placed on the Preservation Alliance’s 2011 Endangered Properties List). Neither of these two threatened properties has been nominated to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which would nominally protected from demolition. As properties with large footprints on the periphery of an urban core in transition, they are especially vulnerable to being torn down to make way for new development. A third civic building, the Downtown Jewish Orphanage at Ninth and Shunk, met this very fate.