Hidden City Festival gives new life to forgotten places

The festival will showcase unique and hidden locations throughout the city.

Upon stepping into Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel, a synagogue in South Philadelphia, a visitor may not recognize the depth of its history. He or she probably can’t guess that the building is one of the few remaining pre-World War I synagogues, or that it hasn’t missed a High Holiday service since 1909.

Hidden City Festival, to be held May 23 to June 30, aims to introduce attendees to historically significant places, like Shivtei Yeshuron, that they may not have had access to before. The festival will host tours, talks, performances and interactive art projects at obscure or abandoned spaces.

One of the sites, Germantown Town Hall, which never actually served as a town hall, will be transformed into Germantown City Hall. The spot will serve as a public space for festival goers and Germantown residents with a meeting and performance area, a library and an office center.

Some other featured locations are Globe Dye Works, Fort Mifflin, Kelly Natatorium and The Historical Society of Frankford.

“These are projects that require participation,” said Lee Tusman, the creative director for Hidden City. “You can’t just go and walk out five minutes later. It really goes beyond the traditional museum or gallery.”

The value of group effort goes much further than collaborative art – the festival is funded, in part, by crowdsourcing, where people donate time, money or materials toward projects. Tusman said this type of funding is effective, because the resources that the sites gain during this process can continue to benefit them after the festival ends.

“Websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are very good at raising money, but they’re not good at volunteer and material donation,” Tusman said. “We just launched last week, and we’ve already had hundreds of people sign up on the site to contribute money, volunteer hours and materials. It’s definitely an experiment, but we’ve established partnerships with people that do have materials, and we have a huge community of volunteers already.”

When Hidden City announced a second festival was in the works, Morris Levin, a member of Shivtei Yeshuron, thought the synagogue would be a good fit.

“I thought this would be a wonderful space to do a multifaceted arts event. There’s so many different ways to be Jewish, there’s so many ways in which people connect, so I wanted to find a way that [the synagogue] could be open for connecting different narratives of Jewish identity,” Levin said.

Throughout the festival, textile artist and University of the Arts professor Andrew Dahlgren will set up a knitting lab on the second floor of the synagogue on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. The pieces that participants knit will be assembled into a “sweater” that will be draped onto the facade of the building.

“It’s about scale,” Dahlgren said of the project. “The knitting machine allows you to make bigger things faster, so it’s somewhat to show that it can be done and also to get people asking how can it be done. People envision knitting as just sitting in a room with two needles, but it’s a lot more than that.”

The synagogue will have several other events throughout the festival, including three concerts put on by Ars Nova Workshop from klezmer jazz composer John Zorn’s “Book of Angels” series. At another time, Shivtei Yeshuron is set to host the Philadelphia premiere of documentary “Punk Jews.” On Sundays, a speaker series will bring guests such as Ivy Weingram, a curator at the National Museum of American Jewish History and Tyler School of Art professor Billy Yalowitz to the synagogue. In addition, visitors will be able to able to delve into the building’s history during tours four days a week.

Levin said he hopes that the exposure provided by the festival will pique people’s interest in the historic space.

“If we can get people here and let people know that it’s here, there’s a better chance that it’s around for the future,” Levin said.

One of the people that has helped keep the synagogue alive is the congregation’s president Richard Sisman, who has been in charge of Shivtei Yeshuron for five years and been involved with the synagogue for most of his life.

“I grew up down the street [from the synagogue] and moved out in 1973 when the neighborhood started to change. About 15 years ago, I was driving by on a Saturday morning and saw the door was open and said, ‘It couldn’t be.’ I went in and the shul was still having services,” Sisman said. “In 2005, the previous owner passed away and his brother was taking care of the building. After two years, he lost interest and wanted to close it down, so I said, ‘Give me six months to see what I can do.’ At that time, the building was condemned by the city. When I took over, we had zero dollars and all the bills were past due.”

Since then, Shivtei Yeshuron, which now has 15 members, has begun the process of renovating the space and sorting through the multitude of artifacts left there by former South Philly synagogues.

“On one side, we’re hoping Hidden City will bring some funds into the building, and we also hope people will take an interest in the building and come to our services,” Sisman said. “It’s all positive.”

Cheyenne Shaffer can be reached at cheyenne.shaffer@temple.edu.

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