A Surprising Find at Eastern State Penitentiary
A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.
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 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.
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.