Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


Within Four Walls

A forgotten synagogue in a defunct prison is brought to light

Print Email
the synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary
Left and center: The Alfred Fleisher Memorial Synagogue got a facelift, including beautiful plaster work, in the 1950s. The plaster will be restored in the summer of 2008. Right: Inmates, officers, and visitors standing in front of the Eastern State Synagogue Ark celebrate the inmate-painted portrait of Joseph Paull, 1959. Mr. Paull (pictured, with one hand on the painting), who first visited Eastern State as an entertainer, donated meat from his kosher butcher shop, and is said to have secured work for three hundred inmates upon their release from the prison. Today the painting is in the collection of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Few visitors to Eastern State Penitentiary—a dungeon-like prison abandoned in the 1970s and now operating as a history museum—come in search of a religious experience. More often, they are looking to get spooked. The Philadelphia penitentiary was built one hundred and eighty years ago to embody the Quaker idea that solitary reflection leads to penitence, and the grim cellblocks call to mind the suffering of men in extreme isolation.

Recently, though, a more uplifting structure was unveiled on the premises: a synagogue, built in the 1920s and forgotten since the prison’s closing. How did it come to be, and whom did it serve? Joel Rose speaks with historical preservationist Laura Mass and Eastern State program director Sean Kelley about the shul’s past and future.

Eastern State Penitentiary synagogue today
Left: Eastern State’s synagogue before archaeologists removed several inches of debris and stabilized the ceiling, making it safe for visitors. Right: The synagogue as it stands today, cleaned but in a state of near ruin.

Photos: Bottom left, Greg Brooks, 1995. Bottom right, courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. 

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Within Four Walls

A forgotten synagogue in a defunct prison is brought to light

More on Tablet:

A Grandfather’s Hidden Love Letters From Nazi Germany Reveal a Buried Past

By Vox Tablet — Reporter Sarah Wildman’s grandfather escaped Vienna in 1938. Long after he died, she discovered the life—and lover—he left behind.