In our estimation the Times' story below reveals five criminal acts that have been committed in connection with the restoration of a defunct synagogue at the national landmark Eastern State Penitentiary. The acts are:
- Taxpayers and a host of private donors and funders are paying Sean Kelley to be the program manager for a defunct penitentiary and Sally Elk to be the executive director of that closed penitentiary.
- Philadelphia’s Jews diverted and donated $230,000 to restore the 31 by 17 foot defunct shul. List of donors.
- The person who "discovered" the synagogue, Laura Mass, received a graduate degree in 2004 from the University of Pennsylvania for her thesis on the synagogue room -- for analyzing its "artifacts" -- pages from a holiday song book and pieces of plaster.
- There will be more money diverted to create another "museum" to "tell the story of Jewish life at Eastern State, trace the progress of the renovation, and create a mitzvah corner marking the contributions of past and present volunteers who worked to sustain Jewish faith at the prison."
- The Times paid a reporter to write this up as a straight religious news feature and to locate and interview Rabbi Martin Rubenstein, who was the prison’s last Jewish chaplain when the prison closed in 1970. [The Prison's own online press release is in fact far more interesting than the Times' story. Ahem, Mr. Hurdle. That reporter forgot to include the tidbit that, "At its peak, the Jewish population within the prison was no more than 80 inmates." And he also neglected to mention the news that more money will be thrown away for the renovation and stabilization of the Penitentiary’s Catholic Chaplain’s Office, "...with its beautiful Catholic and prison-themed murals painted by a former inmate." Perhaps when the Times covers the next story on the prison it can look into some of the dubious Wikipedia claims such as, "...the holy bible was the only procession (!) that the inmates were given while incarcerated," and the assertion that the prison system itself was cruel and inhumane, "It was widely believed... to have caused significant mental illness among its prisoners due to its solitary confinement." ]
This online reservation system can be used to reserve tickets for The Restored Synagogue / Lost Chaplain's Office Weekend (April 4 & 5). Tours of the synagogue are ongoing from 10 am to 4:45 pm. Please select your tour time from the menu below.It's our view that it is not just a bad choice -- it is criminal -- for the government to use taxpayer money and for a long list of philanthropists to divert much needed funds and donations to create a monument out of a defunct prison -- and for the those funders and donors outside and within the Jewish community to use charity funds to help restore it in any way, shape or form.
Times' Religion Journal
Synagogue Restored in Historic Philadelphia Prison
By JON HURDLE
PHILADELPHIA — Jewish prisoners at Philadelphia’s notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in the mid-20th century had one gleam of light in their hard lives.
Within the prison walls stood a synagogue, a tiny room created from exercise yards by volunteers from Philadelphia’s Jewish community who believed that Jewish convicts should be able to practice their faith, regardless of their crimes.
The synagogue was built in 1924 and was used until the prison closed in 1970. It was then abandoned and suffered severe water damage that rotted the timbers of the ark and benches and destroyed plasterwork, including a large Star of David affixed to the ceiling.
Now the synagogue, the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue, has been restored as a vital part of the 142-year history of the prison, which is a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public.
The synagogue was named after its founder, a Jewish philanthropist who was president of the prison’s trustees in the 1920s. It is believed to have been the first synagogue in a United States prison, said Sean Kelley, program manager for the penitentiary.
After its yearlong renovation, the synagogue, measuring just 31 feet by 17 feet, has a mostly original ark, a reading table, and bench seats down the long sides of the room. A gold-trimmed Star of David is restored to its previous place in the middle of the nine-foot ceiling.
The work cost about $230,000, raised from private donations among Philadelphia’s Jews. The renovated synagogue will be consecrated Wednesday and will open to the public for the first time next Saturday. It will then become a part of the penitentiary’s public tours but will not be used for regular religious services.
On the left side of the room, a new bench back is hinged at the bottom, and can be lowered to reveal a bare masonry wall with three low doorways from which inmates — in the years before 1913 when all were in solitary confinement — would enter individual exercise yards for just one hour a day.
At the rear is a narrow kitchen where kosher foods prepared on the outside were brought in for the Jewish holidays. That space has not been restored so visitors can experience some of the conditions that preceded the renovation.
“We wanted to show what the place looked like when we found it,” said Sally Elk, executive director of the penitentiary.
The synagogue was rediscovered by Laura Mass, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student who wrote her thesis on it in 2004, and found artifacts amid the debris, including pages from a holiday song book and pieces of plaster that helped determine the decorative nature of the space.
Next door, another former exercise yard has been converted into a museum that will tell the story of Jewish life at Eastern State, trace the progress of the renovation, and create a mitzvah corner marking the contributions of past and present volunteers who worked to sustain Jewish faith at the prison.
Among the historic items in the museum will be the synagogue’s original front door on which the outlines of two Stars of David can be seen in the peeling paint. The old door will be set into a steel frame and left slightly ajar because a closed door did not seem very welcoming, Mr. Kelley said.
Conservators led by Andrew Fearon of Milner and Carr Conservation in Philadelphia have taken pains to restore the space to its original condition, even where the original materials were cheap and plain. The benches, for example, were first built with simple plywood, and so have been recreated with the same material.
Rabbi Martin Rubenstein, the prison’s last Jewish chaplain, said the synagogue helped inmates feel connected to their families and their Jewish traditions. When Israel fought the Six-Day War in 1967, some inmates offered to donate their prison wages to help the war effort, he said.
Because Jewish inmates — a small minority in the prison population — were always on their best behavior during services, the synagogue was the only faith group in the penitentiary where a guard was not present, Rabbi Rubenstein said. Any new prisoners who were tempted to breach that trust were given a “very direct lesson” from more experienced hands that transgressions were not permitted, he said.
“It was important for them to feel that the community was still there and that we were there to help them,” he said.