IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Historic prison works to restore lost synagogue

Image: Eastern State Pen.
An exterior view of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The penitentiary opened in 1829, closed in 1971, and then historic preservationists reopened it to the public for tours in 1994. Officials at the penitentiary plan to restore the synagogue and say it will be functioning in time for Yom Kippur in October.Matt Rourke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the eyes of the law, the worshippers were criminals. But to the rabbi who served them, they were simply Jewish men in search of faith and spiritual guidance.

The synagogue behind the walls of Eastern State Penitentiary was a place for inmates to reflect and, perhaps, seek forgiveness. But after the prison closed in 1971, the room remained forgotten even as work began to preserve other parts of the decaying historical site.

Now, officials at the 179-year-old landmark prison and popular tourist attraction are restoring the synagogue's spare but dignified environs. Decades of neglect had left the consecrated space almost inaccessible due to collapsed stone walls outside; inside, rotted wood benches sat amid several inches of debris from a fallen ceiling.

"It was in terrible shape," said Cindy Wanerman, president of the site's board of directors. "Nothing was where it was supposed to be. It was the ultimate jigsaw puzzle."

The prison in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia was an architectural marvel when it opened in 1829. It had indoor plumbing and central heat before the White House in order to carry out its mission of enforcing penitence — thus the term "penitentiary" — through solitary confinement. (The solitary system was abandoned in 1913.)

In the years after the prison closed, the facility largely became a crumbling mess, save for its massive 30-foot stone walls and castle-like guard towers. Historical preservationists came in to maintain it in a state of semi-ruin and reopened it to the public for tours in 1994. The first year, it attracted 10,450 visitors; last year, more than 191,000 people came.

Visitors now wander the eerie cellblocks with peeling paint, peer into deserted cells and roam the prison yard. A particularly well-furnished cell on the tour was the temporary home of gangster Al Capone, who served time for carrying a concealed deadly weapon.

The synagogue was built off a cellblock alley in the early 1920s under the leadership of Jewish businessman and philanthropist Alfred Fleisher, who was also president of the prison's board of trustees.

Wanerman has been leading efforts to restore it with help from former University of Pennsylvania graduate student Laura Mass, who researched its history and led an excavation of the room about four years ago.

Mass said she found it in a "romantic, ruined state" — a foot of debris on the floor, faded Stars of David on the doors, an empty ark where the Torah had been kept.

"It was so distinctly a synagogue," Mass said. "There it was, just sitting there untouched."

Sifting through the fallen plaster, she found sheet music for Hanukkah songs and a tip from the point of a star that had been affixed to the ceiling.

An interior view of the synagogue is shown at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Wednesday, April 2, 2008. The penitentiary opened in 1829, closed in 1971, and then historic preservationists reopened it to the public for tours in 1994. Officials at the penitentiary plan to restore the synagogue and say it will be functioning in time for Yom Kippur in October. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Matt Rourke / AP

Eastern State didn't have many Jewish inmates: At its peak, there were no more than 80 in a prison that held approximately 1,700, officials said. Protestant services and Catholic Mass were held on the second floor of an industrial building on the prison grounds; closed to visitors, it also awaits restoration.

Rabbi Martin Rubenstein, now 80, served as the prison's last rabbi at the same time he led a synagogue in the Philadelphia suburb of Woodbury, N.J. Rubenstein said he did not judge the prisoners for their crimes as he ministered to them — he left that to God and the courts.

"I never viewed the inmates there as any different than members of my congregation on the outside," Rubenstein said. "As far as I was concerned, they were men coming to services."

A committee has raised about $280,000 for the synagogue project, which will include installing new wooden benches and restoring the plaster ceiling with a Star of David; a Torah has been pledged to replace the original one that disappeared.

The synagogue is closed to visitors during the renovation, but officials say it will eventually be a functioning religious site that they expect to open in time for Yom Kippur in October.

Rubenstein said he hopes visitors to the renovated space will recognize its holiness and its history.

"I hope that when they come in they will realize this is a place where people worshipped, and gained and restored their faith in God, and sought God's help," Rubenstein said. "Men in institutions such as that, or in any institution, really need spiritual guidance."