The One-Room Shul in an Old Philly Prison


The Alfred W. Fleisher synagogue didn’t always have a rabbi, but in the mid-20th century it did have Morris “The Rabbi” Bolber. Bolber, the fomer leader of a murder ring in Philadelphia, and Fleisher’s congregants, were inmates in the Eastern State Penitentiary, a notorious prison that is now a National Historic Landmark.

The synagogue had been left to ruin until 2004, a graduate student discovered siddur detritus in the space that was once used to house Jewish inmates’ prayer services. Over the next few years private donors stepped up to fund its restoration. Today the room is available for perusing, and you can go next door to learn more about Jewish prisoners like Bolber. There’s also information on Jewish volunteers in the prison: Joseph Paull, for instance, first visited the prison as a “strongman” to entertain the inmates, later donated food from his kosher butcher shop, and then found jobs for more than 300 inmates upon their release.

Just because they were in prison doesn’t mean Jewish inmates didn’t also want to give back: during the 1967 war in Israel some prisoners offered to give their wages to the war effort. That’s a mitzvah coming from a very unexpected place.

Watch a documentary about Eastern State Penitentiary:

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