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Within Four Walls

A forgotten synagogue in a defunct prison is brought to light

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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. 

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Within Four Walls

A forgotten synagogue in a defunct prison is brought to light

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