Eastern State Penitentiary's secret

March 31, 2009 3:43:59 PM PDT
A little-known bit of history at the Eastern State Penitentiary will be showcased at the landmark beginning Wednesday, just in time for Passover."Eastern State Penitentiary has what we think was the first synagogue in a prison and the fact that it's here has always been a mystery to our visitors," said Sean Kelley, the program director at the prison.

Built in 1924, the synagogue was seen only on maps after the prison closed in 1971. And time took its toll.

"The plaster ceiling over my head had collapsed onto the floor it's about a foot of plaster debris and muck. All of the wood on this side of the room had rotted and was falling in. The arch behind me had swollen and cracked away from the walls."

There were usually only a handful of Jews at the prison, dozens out of thousands of inmates. Still Jewish leaders asked the prison to let them transform four exercise stalls, whose doors can still be seen behind one set of benches, into a place of worship.

For years, men from the community regularly joined the prison congregation, turning the synagogue into both a sanctuary and a refuge.

"They also sat here and read the newspaper together and had volunteers from the outside come in and tell them about local politics and what was happening on the outside."

Now, after a painstaking refurbishment, once again the wood benches shine, and the walls are Tiffany blue and the ark is restored.

Next to the restored synagogue will be a museum with artifacts like the original doorway with its Stars of David.

Wednesday a rabbi will bless the space and this weekend the public will be welcomed. The synagogue will bear witness to a community that showed compassion even to murderers, thieves and rapists.

"They were dedicating their lives to a really imperfect group of men and seeing that they lived a traditional Jewish life even though they had made such horrible mistakes earlier in their lives."

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