For tourists, the Eastern State Penitentiary is known for its eerie and somber ambiance. This past week, Eastern State temporarily ditched its gloomy pretense for a more celebratory one.
The renowned prison was brimmed with a crowd eagerly awaiting the dedication of the newly-restored Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue. The synagogue was opened along with the William Portner Memorial Exhibit on Jewish Life, an adjacent exhibit that commemorates the synagogue’s history and Jewish life.
Rabbi Jonathan Gerard, Jewish chaplain at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford and adviser to Synagogue Exhibit at Eastern State, led the dedication and blessing of the adjacent exhibit.
“There were never many Jews here at Eastern State,” Gerard said. “One factor in criminal behavior is frustrated expectations, and for Jews who came here, the calendar was punctuated by Christian holidays and punctuated by Christian vocabulary. The ethos was punctuated by the Quaker notion of silence.
“And then, along comes the influence from the outside community, hoping to reinforce the desire to not assimilate but to foster a Jewish environment at Eastern State. So in the early 20th century, this synagogue was founded – a synagogue that defied the principle, if you will, of silence and solitary confinement.”
That is the theme in the restored synagogue – breaking away from silence, “speaking,” Gerard said.
The synagogue opened in 1924 and was the first synagogue built in an American prison. The president of Eastern State’s Board of Trustees, Alfred W. Fleisher, had it built and attended all services held at the synagogue until his death in 1928. Services were continuously held after Fleisher’s death until 1970 when Eastern State closed.
Shortly after, the synagogue deteriorated from roof leaks, leading to heavy duty damage. This water infiltration posed a problem, said Andrew Fearon, lead conservator of the Synagogue Restoration Project.
“The adjacent structure, which had just been stabilized, didn’t have gutters on it, and it was such a large roof area for years and years, and it had dumped tons of water on top of the synagogue, which resulted in the roof breaking down, the plaster falling off and literal rain [in the structure],” said Fearon, the Milner + Carr Conservation, LLC conservator.
Physical restoration of the synagogue and the conversion of the workshop into memorial exhibit began in May. The restoration was a collaborative effort on the parts of many individuals such as Fearon, Laura Mass, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student who wrote her thesis on the synagogue in 2004, and Cindy Wanerman, president of the Board of Trustees at Eastern State, who oversaw the project.
The restored synagogue looked brand new, as though it had never been touched or damaged – similar to its original appearance in 1960. The dark blue-painted walls above the dark wooden benches lend a change of scenery to the penitentiary’s normally gray, granite appearance. Lowering the back of the wooden benches exposes old doorways inmates used to access the exercise yard.
The former exercise yard is now the exhibit, a historical tribute to Eastern State’s Jewish life. The most poignant displays at the exhibit are that of the former front door to the synagogue and one of two Stars of David that used to be framed on the door. The engraved outline, where both stars once resided, resonates poetically.
Leaving tourists in a state of awe seems to have been the purpose of the synagogue’s restoration. And if the synagogue or the exhibit doesn’t accomplish this task, Wanerman’s retelling of Howard Fleisher’s reaction will.
Wanerman recanted the early stages of the project when Howard, Fleisher’s son, first got involved. Howard hadn’t been in the synagogue since he was 11, the same year he had his bar mitzvah without his father alive to witness it.
“We come back here and Howard is now 90 years old, and he has tears in his eyes because when you’re 90, who talks to you about your dad?” Wanerman said.
Last October, Fleisher’s grandson had his bar mitzvah in the synagogue at Eastern State. Wanerman asked Fleisher if he thought it was terrific that, as a result of his involvement in the project, they were able to hold his father’s great grandson’s bar mitzvah.
Wanerman said Fleisher turned to her and said: “This is [my grandson’s] bar mitzvah, but personally, this is my bar mitzvah. My father died four months before I had it, so to be in a synagogue he inspired and celebrate a bar mitzvah in my family is personal to me.”
This reaction, Wanerman said, is exactly what made this project special to everyone who took part in it.
Joshua Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.