The 1920s Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary Has Been Rediscovered and Restored
by Smuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) A small synagogue built behind the walls of Philadelphia's historic Eastern State Penitentiary has been rediscovered, researched and restored as part of the ongoing restoration of the famous prison, now a National Historic Landmark and historic site. Historic Preservation student Laura Mass first brought the room to the attention of historians and conservators and she subsequently wrote her Masters Thesis (2004) about the history, architecture and conservation needs of the space. Now, after a successful fund-raising and restoration campaign the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue (its original name) is open to the public. According to the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site websitte: "The synagogue is named for Alfred W. Fleisher, President of the Board of Trustees of Eastern State Penitentiary from 1924-1928, who was an active prison reformer and helped found the synagogue. Upon his sudden death in 1928 at age 50, the Jewish inmates were so moved by their loss, that they placed a bronze tablet in the synagogue, dedicating the room to his memory."
Over $345,000 was raised for the project with lead funding from The Suzanne F. and Ralph J. Roberts Foundation and the Aileen K. and Brian L. Roberts Foundation.
You can read about the opening in a New York Times article of March 27, 2009.
For a more detailed history of Jews at Eastern state and the founding of the synagogue, you can read excepts form Maas' MA, Thesis, “The Synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary: History and Interpretation: A Thesis in Historic Preservation,"
Congratulations to Laura and the conservation team led by led by Andrew Fearon of Milner and Carr Conservation for this project. You read a detailed account of the restoration here.
Laura had called me when she first started work for some advice - I'm not sure I was able to tell her much that was useful. But I was excited by her work and the project for several reasons. First, in the 1950s and 1960s my father Jacob W. Gruber and his colleague and mentor Negley Teeters were deeply involved in the history and sociology of the prison. My father, in fact, discovered numerous documents pertaining to the prison history, which were donated to the American Philosophical Society. He was intrigued by the obvious long history of Jewish prisoners - and I think he wrote a short article about this. I remember how the Jewish establishment of the time did not think that the history of Jewish criminals was worthy of attention (that was before all the interest in Meyer Lansky and other Jewish gangsters).
Second, I thought that this discovery would make a nice "bookend" to the already restored Landmark Frank Memorial Synagogue at the Albert Einstein Medical Center (formerly The Jewish Hospital), built in 1901 by Arnold W. Brunner. These two very different institutional prayer halls expand the idea of what an American synagogue is. The Eastern State Synagogue is thought to be the first synagogue in any prison in the United States (Of course, synagogues and prisons have a long joined history, since in Europe synagogues were often used as prisons. A good example is the synagogue in Tykocin, Poland, where Jewish criminals were apparently kept in the tower).
The Synagogue Restoration Committee was led by Cindy Wanerman, who led an energetic and innovative group of volunteers, donors and professionals in this effort.