Since 1936 the Germantown Jewish Centre has provided a vibrant hub for Jewish life in Philadelphia. Members of this synagogue, located at 400 W. Ellet St., range from Jews living nearly next door to Lower Merion, all involved with the Center’s social and cultural affairs.
In the 1960s, African-Americans began moving into West Mount Airy. While many Jewish and white residents moved to the suburbs, many Jews in West Mount Airy didn’t budge. During that time, Rabbi Elias Charry led Germantown Jewish Centre’s congregation and was instrumental in urging Jewish families to stay in West Mount Airy.
Rabbi Adam Zeff, the current leader, said the West Mt. Airy community has had a long history of housing different groups of people and has taken determined steps to overcome ethnic and religious divides.
“Mount Airy is unique because of its diversity. This synagogue was founded at a time when it was essentially a white area. When Jews started moving into Germantown, Germans were moving out. Then in the 1960s, there was a lot of white flight. A lot of people were scared that the neighborhood was changing and they should get out. All of the other synagogues in this area moved out. This synagogue decided to stay here and become part of an integrated community,” Zeff said.
Jews remained connected to West Mount Airy. This enabled the Germantown Jewish Centre to develop strong ties to the community. The organization currently serves the community in a variety of ways from the hospitality center, which works with other faith-based organizations to help the homeless, to more recent endeavors like the women’s group’s flea market, which brought local businesses, organizations and residents together earlier this month.
In addition to volunteer work, this center provides religious services for Jews of different denominations meeting needs of its eclectic congregation by offering different prayer groups.
Over the past seven decades, the center has remained central to the lives of many Jewish families in Philadelphia. In fact, while other congregations are shrinking, the group is growing.
Martha Schleifer, a resident of Lower Merion, grew up in the center and has witnessed younger generations of her family do the same.
“We stayed here because my family is here. My one brother and my cousins belong to this synagogue. My uncle and my parents belonged here. My uncle is the only one left. He turned 100 on May 16 and celebrated his birthday here. I got married here. My kids went to Hebrew school here,” Schleifer said.
In addition to the memories made and traditions shared, Schleifer has kept coming back because of the open and inclusive nature.
“The other places we went to when we moved to Lower Merion, which was a long time ago, weren’t open to women participating in services. I grew up here where women could always participate in services,” Schleifer said.
“They’re very conscious of social action, community service and support of others. You didn’t just come here, go to a service and leave. It’s not that kind of place. I’ve taken many, many education courses here, a whole gamut of things.”
In addition, many Jewish families have migrated to West Mount Airy, in large part because of its proximity to the center.
“My wife and I decided to move to Mount Airy 25 years ago, both because of the community and the synagogue,” Mitch Marcus said.
Marcus, the incoming president of the synagogue, said, “We talk about ourselves as a community of communities and it really functions that way. People tend to be involved with a small group of people and yet be part of a much larger place where a lot of things are happening.”
Mark Hartsfield, a resident who was born on Ellet Street and has decided to remain there, said he recognizes the center’s dedication and contribution to the neighborhood. For over a decade, Hartsfield’s family rented one of their apartments out to a Jewish family. The family later chose to buy a house in Mount Airy and stay involved in the community.
“The synagogue as well as other religious organizations play a tremendous role in keeping people in the community and making people feel at home,” Hartsfield said.
Hartsfield’s late wife was Jewish. They built their married life together on West Ellet Street for its closeness to his family and the center, where his wife worked for short time.
“Our children attended Henry School, as I did as a youngster. When Henry was under reconstruction, they had classes at the synagogue. Now, every class has their graduation at the synagogue,” Hartsfield said.
Rabbi Charry’s legacy of building interracial and interfaith relationships has continued to influence the direction of the synagogue.
“We work a lot on modeling in our community on figuring out how to partner with each other across differences,” Rabbi Zeff said. “We’re hoping to take that model out of synagogue and bring it into our community. Just because we’re different doesn’t mean we have to oppose each other.”
A Family Affair on West Ellet Street
Four generations of the Hartsfield family have lived on the 400 block of Ellet Street in West Mount Airy. In the early 1960s, they moved in when the neighborhood was becoming more racially integrated. Here is their experience living in the community with many of their family members.