A Surprising Find at Eastern State Penitentiary

Posted on May 2, 2018 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

On Monday, April 23, the JMM management team (Marvin, Tracey, Joanna, Ilene and me) piled into Ilene’s car and drove to Philadelphia.

We made the trip to visit our colleagues at the National Museum of American Jewish History and at the Eastern State Penitentiary. Both institutions provided engaging and meaningful experiences, and both provided surprises. I will leave some stories for other posts (and maybe other writers), and focus here on what I found the most surprising about Eastern State Penitentiary: its synagogue.

The historic prison has a beautifully restored synagogue in its midst. I was surprised when our tour guide first mentioned its existence, and my surprise was only compounded when we stepped into the space.

The small room is paneled in a dark wood not unlike our own Rosen-Salganik Board Room, with a simple but decorative ark in one corner and a golden star of David medallion on the ceiling.

The original synagogue door shows the ghosts of two stars of David that used to adorn it.

The space had been built in the early 20th century. “Were there a lot of Jewish prisoners here?” I wondered aloud. Our tour guide informed me that when the synagogue was completed in the 1920s, about 80 of the 1400 prisoners there were Jewish. Rather than a pressing demand for Jewish religious expression among the prisoners, the Eastern State synagogue was built by the broader Philadelphia Jewish community. Likewise, the gleaming, restored space was made possible by the contemporary community.

Once we had had a chance to take in the space, our guide asked for our help flipping down a long section of paneling. As the section flipped down on a long piano hinge, exhibit panels were revealed, presenting the history of the space and of Jewish life at Eastern State.

We had fun comparing historical photos to the contemporary space in which we stood, and were all intrigued to read that the first Jewish clergy to visit Eastern State did so in 1845, the same year our own Lloyd Street Synagogue was born.

Also on display in the synagogue space was a small crowd-sourced display, Share Your Mitzvah.

The Eastern State staff created cards that allowed visitors to share mitzvahs done either by them or for them. They’d also created cards for children to draw pictures to share their stories of good-deed-doing or -receiving. I was impressed with both the sentiment of the display and the low-tech efficiency of it.

In fact, don’t be surprised if one day in the not-too-distant future JMM asks for similar crowd-sourced reports of good-deed-doings.

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