One of Hidden City Philadelphia’s hallmarks is its sweeping vigilance of beautiful, worthy buildings facing demolition. Scattered across the city, abandoned religious structures are also monitored for their architectural fate. This month marked the fifth anniversary of the 2013 Hidden City Festival in which the then fledgling, historic Shivtei Yeshuron (aka “The Little Shul”) Orthodox row house synagogue was featured. Today Shivtei is decked out with brand new carpeting, air conditioning, a new dropped ceiling, new windows, new wiring, bright lighting and, most impressively, incremental, but steady growth in a genuine congregational rebirth.
In 2007, rainwater was dripping down on either side of the sacred torah scroll at Shivtei on 4th Street just above Synder Avenue in South Philadelphia. “It was as if the hand of God was above the torah protecting it,” said Joel Spivak, designer and local historian. Spivak had written a poem titled, “Voices of My Ancestors,” that spoke of a building becoming a memory and didn’t want that to happen to Shivtei. The horse stable attached to the rear of the row house synagogue on Moyamensing Avenue had collapsed and the eight remaining congregants no longer felt safe in the building. The ever dwindling congregation implored him to do something, so he weighed in on funding prospects for renovations to save the structure.
In 2013, Shivtei was chosen as one of nine sites for the Hidden City Festival. The turn-around of the historic synagogue had already begun. Improvements in the space have since made it that much more useful and welcoming. New needs and generous benefactors alike have arisen over the ensuing years. Foregoing intensive and, potentially, frustrating efforts of a major fundraising drive, the shul has, instead, benefited from the surprising efficiency and wisdom of a slow climb. There’s a great ethos of gratitude for every dollar given, and money is in no way a barrier to entry. Membership remains $36 a year. No tickets are needed for High Holidays and there is no charge for use of the space for life cycle events.
Two visionaries of the congregation’s revival, Morris Levin and Rich Sisman, were right. If you fix it they will come. And yet their energetic mission is not to recreate a relic from the past. Still largely hewing to traditional observance, the appeal of Shivtei is broad-based, very diverse in terms of race, class, observance, gender, and age. It has become an oasis of religious comfort that manages to offer something for everyone without becoming a watered-down version of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. A blend of creative thoughts and ideas thrive in its uniquely non-judgmental atmosphere. Politics and controversy are quietly, yet intentionally, left outside the door.
Origins of Renewal
Looking back to “a beautiful June day” in 2010 when Levin and a friend first arrived on foot at Shivtei, discovering a true hidden gem in the neighborhood, Levin said, “What I am seeing evolve now is more organic than my original thinking and beginning to emerge into a community of sorts. Shivtei’s core mission is to make services and it has done this. Seeing the positive response to events during the Hidden City Festival, Shivtei continues to offer talks and lectures on Torah, Jewish culture, and South Philadelphia. This has expanded the different kinds of folks who come through the building.”
Shivtei excels by keeping a clear and narrow focus, and staying within its resources–with money and volunteer hours. Shivtei is good at conducting services, making a nice kiddish (blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the sabbath and Jewish holidays), hosting lectures, and being a space for ritual events. Lipkin’s Bakery is moving back in. Shivtei is in the middle of a growing neighborhood for the first time since the years after WWII.
Shivtei, only a long stone’s throw from the Delaware River where Jewish immigrants first docked in the early 20th century, re-emerges today as a cultural anchor, a community space, with active museum and educational components. It has become a regular stop on tours of Jewish Philadelphia and of South Philadelphia and was on a recent Jane’s Walk. A Jewish group from Boston visited recently. Mural Arts stops at the shul on its tour of immigrant South Philadelphia. This past semester, a Swarthmore student wrote a senior paper on the shul and its architecture. Drexel University will showcase Shivtei in a June symposium on South Philadelphia immigrant communities.
Historically, waves of immigrants have also characterized the tidal rise and fall and rise of Shivtei over time. As it grows now, it is actively weaving its colorful stories into the fabric of a resurgent South Philadelphia community.
“I just love the place. I love keeping it alive,” said Gary Cohen, who ran a corner deli with his wife for decades a block from Shivtei. They provided supplies, food, “a good brisket,” and catering to the area and were always busy. When Cohen’s wife, Cathy, passed away he lost heart and closed up shop. He became a SEPTA bus driver for some years before retiring. Cohen walks to services at Shivtei now, but his connection dates back to 1980 when the 2nd and 3rd floors were relegated to pigeons and random storage. Services continued even then while paint peeled off the walls and stamped tin ceiling on the first floor. His wife, a convert to Judaism from her Methodist upbringing, helped prompt a crew of volunteers to paint the shul.
Cohen recalled that there was a nice gent, Mr. Charles Kazinetz, 103 years old, baker by trade, who walked to and from weekend services regularly. He would always come dressed in his finest. One morning he didn’t show up. Congregants became concerned and went over to his house, nearby. When they got there, Mr. Kazinetz, dressed in his finest for services, was sitting at a table with a cup of tea. He had just expired.
“There’s a certain spark in there. I like to keep the walls vibrating. To me, when that happens, God smiles…a wry smile,” said Cohen.
Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, director of Center City Kehillah, a network of 30 Jewish institutions in and around Center City explained, “Our members range from giants like Rodeph Shalom on Broad Street (membership at just under 1,200 families) to a minyan (quorum of 10 people) that meets in people’s homes and doesn’t have a bank account. ‘The Little Shul’ is in that amazing space in between, so historic, but also reinventing itself. It’s large in history, but small in size. I love that they call themselves ‘The Little Shul’ because it owns that identity.”
Steinberg-Egeth continued, “One of the things Shivtei has done so well is hosting arts and culture events, making a name for itself separate from the traditional services that might not appeal to everyone. There are people who go there for services just because it is a kind of authentic that’s hard to find elsewhere. The ‘Old World’ vibe combined with their commitment to posting service dates on Facebook also puts them in a unique space, staying relevant and reaching people while still being true to itself. The Center City Kehillah did a bike tour of Jewish Philly a couple years ago, and Shivtei was the final stop. I’d actually never been there before myself, and I was really moved by being there.”
“A rabble rouser from St. Louis who calls Philly home,” is how Marta Buechler, young professional, describes herself. Her family is not religious, she says, and she didn’t have much of a Jewish community growing up. “I became religious during and after college through Hillel student groups and meeting other Jews at shabbatons (weekend Shabbat retreats). I moved to Philadelphia in November 2015, tried a few different prayer spaces, and never felt totally comfortable. Through Morris Levin and his wife, Rachel, I fell in love with Shivtei immediately. Because it is a small community, there isn’t really room for big egos. If someone is new, you have to notice.”
Buechler explained, “I want people to know that Little Shul is actually for everyone who wants to be there: We have anarcho-socialists and people who watch Fox News. I’m an anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, queer woman and I’m also an Orthodox Jew. I would never drive on Shabbat, but I don’t disrespect those who do drive to Little Shul. I don’t think they care who I date, we’re just at shul to pray.”
Shivtei charts new territory with a variety of programming that matches the diversity of its congregants and attendees. They have hosted a Hanukah party, arts events, an interactive machine knitting laboratory, screened the film Punk Jews and presented a Sunday morning speaker series. A concert space was opened for Ars Nova Workshop’s Radical Jewish Music: A Concert Series featuring “Masada Book Two–The Book of Angels” by composer John Zorn. Shivtei marked Holocaust Remembrance Day with a talk in April 2014. They are looking to renew their speaking series and are always open to new ideas to increase their presence in Philadelphia’s cultural landscape.
Levin said, “I was amongst the youngest at services in 2013 when I was 36. Most attendees were 50 and above. The older South Philadelphia Jewish community was aging and dying. On Saturday, you saw a number of folks in their 20s and 30s. The mix of ages is important for all of us as humans. We are not living 1,000 years ago (or 50 years ago) where generations and cousins lived with and on top of each other. A space like kiddush allows folks of different ages to break bread and make a li’chaim [blessing] together.”
Levin continued, “It’s too easy for us to segregate ourselves by generation in our minyans and synagogues, being more on the same schedules and place in life. What range of ages gives me is a reminder for my soul of where I’ve been–seeing younger folks and children, and where I’m going with older folks. Shivtei adds to the legacy of buildings successfully saved, and in this case, still functioning in its core, original use after 109 years of existence. In Philadelphia, in 2018, this is good news.”