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"The lost synagogue" at Eastern State Penitentiary. (Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site)

The Synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary

The Synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary

smithsonian.com

Eastern State Penitentiary may have Protestant roots, but it also had a Jewish synagogue, which, along with its rich history, was revealed to the public for a limited period in April 2008.

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Though the Jewish prison population never numbered more than 80 at a single time, there was a strong Jewish presence at the penitentiary dating back to 1845. Local rabbis came to counsel the inmates and provide religious readings.

By the early 1920s, after the Pennsylvania System of isolation had been abandoned, Alfred Fleisher, then president of the prison's board of trustees, advocated the construction of a synagogue to better accommodate the needs of the Jewish inmates. Prisoners and local volunteers set out to build the religious center in the former exercise yards of cellblock seven.

It was an ornate space, with a decorated ceiling and red tiled floor. Benches lined the walls while a reader's table and wooden Torah Ark filled the room. Fleisher joined the inmates for every service at the synagogue until his death in 1928. Later that year, the synagogue was dedicated to Fleisher and a bronze plaque was erected in his memory.

Other memorable attendees of the synagogue included Joseph Paull, a famous Jewish strongman who was invited by Fleisher in 1923 to entertain the inmates with his feats of strength. Paull developed a great rapport with the inmates, returning for services and supplying the prison with food from his kosher butcher shop. Later, learning of the difficulty that some prisoners faced—they were eligible for parole but could not be released because they had not secured employment—he created a program that matched prisoners with employers. Paull would continue to be a loyal supporter of the prison community until his death in 1966.

Services at the synagogue continued until the prison's closure in 1971. Abandoned for the next 33 years, it would fall into a great state of disrepair. Stone walls leading to the Synagogue's entrance collapsed, impeding access, and parts of the plaster ceiling fell from deterioration due to water damage. In 2004, University of Pennsylvania student Laura Mass, having researched the penitentiary for her graduate degree in historic preservation, attempted to unearth the forgotten house of worship from beneath the rubble.

During the excavation, Mass found remnants of the decorative plaster ceiling, pages of a holiday songbook, and parts of a Star of David. These discoveries encouraged the Eastern State Penitentiary historic site to establish a Synagogue restoration committee. Today reconstruction of the Alfred W. Fleisher Synagogue still continues, and is expected to join the penitentiary's public tour in October 2009.

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