Behind Bars, a Mitzvah

Bringing back the long-forgotten synagogue at Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary

Crews restored the structure of the crumbling synagogue, vacant for nearly four decades, as well as the wood ark, elaborate sconces, and an ornate plaster ceiling.

Credit: Eastern State Penitentiary

Rising high above Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary, with its signature stone walls and Gothic Revival design, boasts its share of firsts. First large-scale penitentiary in America, built in the 1820s. First place Al Capone was jailed, when he was arrested in 1929 for carrying a concealed weapon. And almost certainly the first prison in this country to build a synagogue. 

Eastern State—designed as an ambitious experiment in penal reform, relying on solitary confinement and encouraging personal reflection to compel prisoners to repent—closed in 1971 but reopened more than two decades later as a museum. Often called a "stabilized ruin," the National Historic Landmark now welcomes hundreds of curious visitors who tour the facility, Al Capone's cell included. But until recently, the synagogue deep within the penitentiary sat in ruins, a little-known vestige of Eastern State's history. Then, encouraged in part by a researcher named Laura Mass, the site's directors embarked on an extensive $250,000 restoration.

During an internship at the penitentiary, when Mass was a University of Pennsylvania graduate student, she decided to write her thesis about the synagogue. "This will be affirming for me, to be connected to my cultural heritage," she remembers thinking.

Mass pieced together the history of the sanctuary by sifting through the ­penitentiary's old annual reports and newspapers published by prisoners. She discovered that Alfred Fleisher, a local businessman and president of the penitentiary's board of trustees, helped win approval to build a synagogue here in the 1920s. And though the penitentiary never held more than 80 Jewish prisoners at any time, the sanctuary thrived.

Volunteers from the community made regular visits to help the inmates maintain their faith, as did local rabbis. One rabbi remembered that services came to be held without guards present because the inmates honored the space as a place of reflection.

After the prison closed, rain gradually caused first the roof and then the synagogue's plaster ceiling to collapse. Trees took root and pushed through toward the sky. "It was like a bomb had gone off," Mass says.

The restoration initiated by Milner + Carr Conservation took the sanctuary back to its 1960 appearance, the last time it had been renovated. Conservators rebuilt the modernist sconces and restored the dark red floor tiles and the poplar benches and armrests. 

Now open to visitors, the synagogue sparkles anew, the grand altarpiece rebuilt from original wood, and an ornate Star of David once again gracing the ceiling. For Mass, the reborn synagogue honors the inmates who made it their own. "They felt very proud of this space and took good care of it," she says. "It's a very touching story."

Eastern State Penitentiary is an official Save America's Treasures project.

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