SKETCHES FROM OUR HISTORY by Jay Furman
The following is a summary of articles that appeared in eight consecutive issues of The Centre Call from October 1987 to May 1988.
How were we organized? Who were our leaders in the early years? What were our housing facilities for our first 10 years? How did we acquire the land our present buildings are on, and the problems it presented? How did we plan and raise funds for our school buildings first and then the sanctuary building? How did we select our architect and what problems came up during construction? What is the meaning of many inscriptions and symbolism in the buildings? Answers to these questions will come mainly from statements made by our early leaders in Dedication, Anniversary, and Dinner-Dance booklets. I will also draw on my personal experience, and conversations with some of our older members. I will be dealing primarily with our buildings and physical plant with anecdotes and comments of interest as they occurred.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
The records tell us that on September 28, 1936, Germantown Jewish Centre was officially established. A full slate of officers and 39 directors were elected. The auditorium of the Pelham Club, later known as the Ross House at 6815 Emlen Street, just off of Carpenter Lane, was leased for $200 per month. That was only the tip of the iceberg. It just didn’t happen overnight. Below the surface were years of groundwork and preparation, motivated by the needs of a fast-growing community of Jewish families in Germantown.
Since colonial days Jews were among the earliest residents of historic Germantown. In the 1930s there was a major influx of young professional and business families who were attracted to the suburban beauty of the area. They came mainly from Strawberry Mansion, Wynnefield, and South Philadelphia. Some had synagogue affiliations in their old neighborhoods, but they were far away. Some had drifted away from active religious practices and felt a strong need to return, particularly when their children arrived. They wanted their children to know the rich heritage and traditions of the Jewish faith. However, they wanted more than just a religious institution.
Additionally, they wanted an institution for complete and creative Jewish living – they wanted social and cultural activities, lectures on current events, Boy Scout and Brownie groups, etc. It was to be a true center and focal point for Jewish activities in Germantown.
As evidence of this thinking, the name Germantown Jewish Centre was selected and has remained despite many attempts to give it a Hebrew title. There was another group of Germantown families who were also most influential in the formative years. They were more mature, had orthodox religious leanings, and were not affiliated with other synagogues. They had Sabbath services in homes during the year and rented space in the neighborhood for the High Holidays. They welcomed the opportunity to be part of the new synagogue movement.
As the movement grew, the need for teaching the children grew more pressing. Private homes were at first used for classes, and finally space was rented above the shoemaker shop at Greene and Carpenter Lane. During 1934-1936, Rabbi Abraham E. Millgram of Congregation Beth Israel agreed to supervise the Hebrew and Sunday School instruction. As the number of families increased, the pressures for more space and permanent quarters grew steadily.
Parents held many home meetings. The men created the Germantown Fellowship Club, which held monthly meetings on cultural and social matters, and later became the nucleus of the Germantown Men’s Club. Committees went out to look for possible rental spaces and to seek out a professional staff.
Some of the young leaders who spearheaded the movement were our first elected officers: Edward N. Polisher, President; Benjamin J. Miller, Vice President; Morris Rudofker, Vice President; Isadore N. Weber, Treasurer; William R. Ladenheim, Financial Secretary; and Harold H. Charlop, Secretary.
Other important organizers were among the first Board of Directors. They included Ingram Bergman, Sidney J. Markowitz, Sidney L. Quitman, Erwin Satinsky, Sigmund H. Steinberg, Hortense Steinberg, and Annette Temin. Among the senior families, who were on the original Board and were instrumental in organizing were Abraham and Louis Burd, Samuel Brier, Harry Daroff, Charlie Meilachowitz, and Harry Uditsky. All the above gave freely of their time, energy, and resources to bring us to September 28, 1936.
OUR FIRST HOMEIn September 1936, the auditorium annex of the Pelham Club was rented by the Germantown Jewish Centre, and this remained its home until November, 1947. The Georgian-style Pelham Club’s main building was located at Carpenter Lane and Emlen Street adjacent to the Carpenter Lane train station. It was built at the turn of the century and was actively used as a social and riding club by the wealthy Chestnut Hill families.
Their major transportation at that time was by horse-drawn carriage. Shortly thereafter, the Ross house, an annex, was built to accommodate the parking and storage of their carriages and automobiles on the first floor. The second floor was a high-ceilinged auditorium with an ample stage that was used for balls, plays, and other activities.
It was the largest auditorium in the city at that time and for many years after. It had a seating capacity of 750 at tables and 1,200 in chairs for lectures. This was the space we rented as our first home. It was more than adequate to hold our religious services in the front portion, with the stage as our Bimah, and for our ongei shabbot or Kiddushim in the rear portion. The sides could be set up for some classrooms, with low movable partitions. A full kitchen was available to the side, for dinners and celebrations, and ample check room and bathroom facilities were in the lobby.
The buildings, which are now owned by the Commodore Barry Club, are still actively used for dances, concerts, and lectures. It was, and still is, a landmark group of buildings in Germantown (now called Mt. Airy). The house committee, led by Max Silberman, worked feverishly to fix up, clean up, build partitions, and make the space attractive and functional. On November 11, 1936, an appropriate ceremony was held and we began to function fully.
To indicate the great need for a Jewish family center in the area, barely six months after we were founded the membership list shown in our March 1937 dinner dance souvenir book showed 237 family units and an enrollment of 85 students. Dr. Solomon Grazell, a well-known author and scholar and a member of the Simon Gratz Senior High School teaching staff, agreed to be our spiritual leader until a permanent Rabbi could be engaged.
He quickly assembled a teaching staff with Dr. Gershon Gelbert as School Principal and Activities Director. He also instituted regular Friday evening and Saturday morning services.
In January 1937, the office, which was run primarily with volunteers, needed a full-time secretary. Evelyn Winderman, who was a senior student at Simon Gratz Senior High School, was hired with Dr. Grazel’s recommendation. It was an excellent choice, as Evelyn remained with the Centre for 17 years with authority and efficiency, even when our membership grew to over 600 families.
GROWING PAINSBefore many years at the Ross House, the leadership of the Centre recognized the deficiencies and disadvantages of the rented space. Costs were high. Parents were complaining about the atmosphere in temporary walled classrooms. Some classrooms, which were in the passageway between the auditorium and the Pelham Club, were cluttered with debris from the Pelham Club Saturday night parties, and had to be cleaned by our staff before classes could start on Sundays.
Automobile fumes and noises from the garage below came up through the floor to disturb the religious services. Cooking odors and clatter from the kitchen alongside were objectionable.
Above all, membership and student enrollments were growing. There was a serious need for classrooms that were conducive to teaching and learning, and a sanctuary that had proper dignity and decorum. At one point, Sol Kopeland, our own member architect and builder, was asked to redesign and make the Ross House more suitable to our needs.
However, after careful consideration, the Board concluded that it would be a costly project, and, more important, the end result would probably not satisfy our goals. The only solution left was to purchase land and design buildings for our specific needs.
A search committee, led by Sidney Markovitz, was set up for the acquisition of land, and Sidney Quitman was put in charge of the building committee to raise funds for the project. Rabbi Elias Charry, who took office in June of 1942, gave great impetus to the program. He instituted our first open appeal for building funds at the 1942 Kol Nidre service.
This raised considerable objections from the floor by the more orthodox and older members of the synagogue. They felt it was not in keeping with the spirit of this solemn holiday. However, it achieved results. By the end of the year, $50,000 had been pledged, which included $10,000, from the Women’s Club, the first of many such commitments. We were well on our way.
The Ross House had served us well as a beginning, but our continued growth and status in the community dictated the need for our own appropriate facilities.
After careful consideration of all available vacant lots in the area, our present site at Lincoln Drive and Ellet Street was selected. It was especially attractive because of its prominent location, its ample ground, and its attractive price. Through the services of Ben Lanard, a prominent realtor and good friend of many of our members, the property was bought for $10,400.
At the time of purchase, the ground was nothing more than a weed patch with some scrub trees, but it had possibilities. All of the eligible architects in the city were contacted and asked to inspect the site and submit a plan for buildings. The results were not encouraging. With only one exception, they all advised us that the site was not suitable for construction.
The slopes were too severe, and it was mostly hard rock outcroppings with very little topsoil. Considerable blasting would be necessary to obtain a conventional level floor building. They advised us to sell it and look for a flat piece of land. The one exception was Harry Sternfeld, F.A.I.A. (more about him later). He looked it over carefully and said, “This land and project is an architect’s dream and challenge. I would be honored to work on it.”
He promptly submitted a hand-drawn sketch of his concept for the site. This sketch, incidentally, which can be seen in the office, bears a remarkable resemblance to our finished buildings. The main departure was that it showed a grand staircase that was to be the approach to the main entrance, coming up from Lincoln Drive and circling around the tablet wall.
The large limestone tablet wall that was in the original sketch, was used and is a prominent feature on the Lincoln Drive side. The rest of the plan was approved and Harry Sternfeld was engaged as our architect. A major step forward had been made.
PLANNING TO BUILDAfter all the negative reports and advice to sell the land we had bought at Lincoln Drive and Ellet Street, it was a tremendous boost to see the exciting and innovative concept sketches that Harry Sternfeld prepared for our buildings.
Harry Sternfeld was a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He was known as “an architect’s architect.” His work was creative and dynamic and since he worked out of a small office, he was able to pursue all phases personally with great energy. He set very high standards, and as the builder and contractors would find out, he was unyielding in the maintenance of quality in labor and materials.
Although not Jewish, he had an exceptional knowledge of the bible and our traditions, as evidenced by many features incorporated in our buildings.
Fund raising was proceeding at a slow pace, and since it was the decision of the Board of Directors that we would not build unless we had all the funds committed, it was not until March 1945 that a planning committee was formed. After some rough guesstimating, it was felt that we would need approximately $125,000 for the school building, and $375,000 for the synagogue building, or a total of $500,000. The pledges at that time were barely $200,000.
However, we were very anxious to get started, and after much debate, it was decided to build the school building first and somehow make it flexible enough so we could use it for a temporary sanctuary and for social functions as well.
This was quite a challenge. Although the architect’s general concept was crystallized and approved, much information was needed before detailed drawings could be prepared. Decisions had to be made on how many classrooms were needed and what size they should be. How much space was needed for office, library, kindergarten, Rabbi’s study, educational director, social hall, etc.?
The committee spent considerable time visiting synagogue schools in the city as well as in the surrounding areas. They tried to ascertain their good points and bad points. This information was thoroughly discussed with the architect and committee before it was incorporated in the plans.
In the final analysis we would have a library and eight classrooms on the second floor and a kindergarten and two classrooms on the first floor, and the balance of the first floor, starting with the fire doors halfway down the hall, would be the sanctuary.
The sanctuary could later be converted, as we have done, to six more classrooms. The first floor would also have a large office, with a back room for an educational director and an upper room for the rabbi’s study. The lower floor was to be one open space with kitchen facilities, which could be used for social functions, assemblies, and meetings.
All this was to be juggled by the architect into the building using the natural contours of the ground to avoid expensive rock blasting. As you notice, the school building shows two floors on the Ellet Street side and three floors on the Lincoln Drive side.
By August 1945, the final architectural concept was approved and detailed drawings and specifications for contractor bidding were started. Bids were solicited and were opened in March 1946. The prices were a great disappointment. The low bid, for $175,000, was submitted by Laub Construction. It was $50,000 more than we anticipated.
The Laub brothers (Maury, who was a member of the Centre, and Albert, who was a very good friend of many Centre members) had many sessions with the committee and the architect to see where costs could be cut. Could we substitute materials, leave out certain features, or cut markups? In May, a final price of $161,000 was submitted, and a contract was awarded to Laub Construction. We were on the way.
FIRM FOUNDATIONSGround breaking ceremonies for our school building took place in July 1946. Progress was slow. We were still faced with some of the lingering shortages and rationing that carried over from World War II. There were many optional decisions, which the Construction Committee, chaired by Maury Kolsky and Maurice Fisher, had to make involving cost limitations, material substitutions, and space allotments.
One of the important decisions was the selection of the stone to be used in the outer walls of the building. It was to be a prominent and distinguishing feature. After careful research, Mr. Sternfeld recommended a granite mined in Port Deposit, Maryland. It was durable, cut well, was close by, and had the right amount of iron oxide to give it a gentle reddish tinge in spots.
The general contractor, Laub Construction, was very cooperative and helpful in working out problems throughout the project. The subcontractor selected for the masonry work was Joseph A. Casacio. Mr. Casacio’s work was the largest and most sensitive sub-contract in the job. The Port Deposit granite came in large slabs, which had to be square cut by hand to the random sizes specified. Some of the leftover slabs can still be seen on the ground behind the school building.
Fortunately, Mr. Casacio had many stone masons, trained in Italy, who were expert in this craft. It was an entirely different skill from laying up brick or block that had been factory cut and sized, or even random stone. Mr. Sternfeld’s standards were very demanding. Every stone corner had to be square cut, without spalling. The pattern of stone sizes had to be pleasing to his eye, or else the section was torn down and redone.
It was a slow, tedious process, but the final result, with its ribbon (raised) pointing, contributes greatly to making our building so outstanding. You won’t find a finer example of hand-crafted stone masonry in the city.
On May 18, 1947, an impressive cornerstone-laying ceremony was held. A record book was signed by all the members and school children present and was sealed within the cornerstone, along with other papers and mementos of the time.
Meanwhile, membership had been growing steadily. At the dedication on November 30, 1947, we had 450 families. What a wonderful feeling! After many years of dedicated hard work, after making do in cramped, dingy, makeshift quarters for over 10 years, it was like paradise to move into our own building, professionally designed for a specific use.
We had 10 full-sized, well-lighted, well-equipped classrooms, a spacious library, a planned kindergarten room, and dignified rabbi and educational director’s rooms. We even had an ample, airy, well-lighted general office. The Sanctuary, which we knew would be temporary, and a multifunction social hall, were also included.
Education of our children was our first priority. However, our school building was designed as a complete synagogue functioning unit, including a sanctuary and a multifunctioning social hall. The entire area midway down the hall on the first floor, behind the pair of fire doors, was one large open space acting as our sanctuary. An ample raised bimah was set cater-cornered in the lower corner of the Lincoln Drive side, and an ark was built to accommodate three torahs.
That ark, incidentally, has been transferred and is the one currently used in the chapel. It had to be shortened to fit the space, which accounts for the Eternal Light being so low and bumping some of our taller congregants. The sanctuary could accommodate approximately 400 on moveable seating. It was quite adequate all year round, except for the high holidays, when we held our service back in the old Ross House.
By the time the synagogue building was built, more classrooms were needed and the space was quickly divided into six more rooms. At first it was done with moveable roll curtains, but soon after, the rooms were divided with masonry block walls, much as you see them today.
The auditorium/social hall/meeting room was of course our present canteen room. The only access to the space, other than the fire exit at the low end, was the staircase coming off the first-floor hallway. It had a well-equipped kitchen and the bathrooms were up the staircase on the first floor.
Many an oneg shabbat, wedding, and Bar or Bat Mitzvah reception was held there. Many a sit down breakfast or luncheon was served with Ralph Granger, our memorable custodian-in-charge, assisted by a corps of women volunteers. It was the best we had and it was fine.
The bride’s room on the first floor, which most of our members still have not seen or do not know about, was not in the original planning. It came about as a result of an unhappy experience. On a very rainy Sunday afternoon in June 1956, Jay Dushoff, the son of Ann and Leo Dushoff, arrived at the synagogue with his bride and they were soaked.
There was no suitable place to change, and Annie, who was very active in the Women’s Club vowed this would never happen again. With money pledged by the Women’s Club, the design of our architect Harry Sternfeld, a classroom was taken and a beautiful space created. It had its own bathroom, full wall mirror, and dressing table and was tastefully decorated. It was completed in December 1956. The first bride to use it was our Joan Marcus for her marriage to Mort Berger. It has been an asset to GJC ever since.
You may have noticed as you enter the school lobby that there are two Hebrew letters inlaid in the terrazzo floor. They are a bet and a lamed. These are symbolic letters, suggested by Rabbi Charry, which stand for the first letter of the first word of our Torah scrolls, Bereshit, and the last letter of the last word in the Torah scrolls, which is Yisrael. The letters thus represent the entire scroll from beginning to end.
Space for a gift shop was included in the original planning. For many years it functioned from the alcove display cabinet at the top of the school staircase. When their needs expanded and we could spare a classroom, the current location was established and has become a continuing asset and fundraiser under Women’s Club leadership.
The room behind the main office, now the computer room, was originally planned for the school director. That became inadequate, and when the Synagogue building was built, a room was established behind the Maslow auditorium. That space later was to be shared with the cantor and has resulted in cramped quarters for both.
Over the years the requirements for our school building have changed dramatically. In 1954, when our synagogue building was dedicated, our membership was up to 650 families. The six potential classrooms that were available in the school building’s temporary sanctuary space were desperately needed and quickly converted. Over the subsequent years, however, due to neighborhood changes, we dropped to as low as 350 families. But a new phenomenon was arising.
Hebrew school enrollment had dropped, but as the ranks of working mothers increased, the Early Childhood Development Programs were growing. Today, we have an excellent ECD program. It occupies almost the whole first floor plus the canteen room and has full enrollment with a waiting list.
A SANCTUARY AT LASTIn 1949 the Board philosophy changed. They no longer felt that all the funds for building a sanctuary had to be on hand, as was done with the school building. The Building Fund had some money left after the school was built, but the need was great and the feeling was that if sufficient funds were not raised, we would get a mortgage to make up the balance needed and allow the next generations to participate in the building project.
In November 1949, a synagogue construction committee was appointed, with Don Dorfman (an electrical engineer) as chairman, assisted by Jay Furman (a mechanical engineer) and Jack Serbin (a chemical engineer). Little did this committee know that it would take the next five years and over 100 meetings before the building would be dedicated in May 1954.
Again, many preliminary decisions had to be made:
How many families do we accommodate? Do we have a separate auditorium or a combination with the Sanctuary? How large an auditorium? Should the kitchen be for cooking or warm-up only? What kind and how many seats in the Sanctuary? How big a Chapel and where to place it? Again, committee groups were sent out to survey and select the good points and avoid the bad features of the surrounding synagogues in Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore.
It was not until August 1950 that plans were completed and bids were solicited. We were shocked when the first round of bids were received. Korean war inflation had already set in, and where we expected to spend between $400,000 and $450,000 the prices ranged between $650,000 and $800,000. Back to the drawing board we went, cutting and substituting for a rebid. The second round came in between $600,000 and $725,000. Still too high.
The committee then worked with the low bidder, exploring all items of cost, to look for additional savings. A contract was finally awarded to Master Masons Construction for $586,000 in February 1951. That did not include the architect fee or the many items of furnishings and equipment to be needed.
Ground breaking took place on March 11. Master Masons was headed by Marty Schwartz, a GJC member, and his partner Ben Schlein. Throughout the entire project, their cooperation and dedication were exemplary. Building progress was very slow.
Materials were allocated, due to the war. Many technical problems developed. Our architect’s standards were very high, and inferior substitutions were not accepted, even if it meant delays. At one point, we could not get an allocation for the structural steel needed for the building framing.
Don Dorfman and Sig Steinberg went to Washington, and after using all their persuasive powers and contacts, they returned with the necessary tonnage allocation and that bottleneck was broken.
High Holidays 1952 saw our first religious services in the new building. We had a floor, ceiling, and four bare walls. Muslin was used on the window openings. Drapes were hung for the bimah wall. A makeshift ark was built for the Torahs, and folding chairs were used for seating. Still, the service was awe inspiring. The majesty of the space was apparent and there was a wonderful religious feeling.
By Kol Nidre 1953, the building was essentially completed, except for the bimah wall, painting, and minor finishing touches.
The weekend of May 21-22, 1954, saw a gala dedication celebration. A wonderful booklet was published, titled “From Dream To Reality.” It contained reflections and messages from Rabbi Elias Charry, Cantor Soloman B. Winter, the president, Harold S. Laden, and all the committee chairmen and club presidents.
It listed all the committee members and the full membership, which showed we had grown to a total of 623 member families. The realization of our dream had created a landmark of majestic beauty for our community and our city.
Many features of our heritage and symbolism were incorporated both inside and outside the synagogue building by our architect, Harry Sternfeld. His original concept of the building showed the huge Ten Commandments tablets on the Lincoln Drive side, and the bare windowless masonry wall representing the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Provision were made for a prominent limestone menorah at the base of the tablet wall on Lincoln Drive.
However, funds were not available and that feature was omitted. The proposed menorah can be seen in the architect’s original sketch. The base was installed, and if funds are made available at a future date, the menorah could be added and would be a distinctive feature to our prominent structure.
The inscription above the main entrance doors, selected by Rabbi Charry, reads, Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishcanotecha Yisrael: “How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, thy dwelling places O Israel.” This is the first prayer in our siddur when we enter the synagogue.
Our bimah is particularly noteworthy and has many interesting symbols. It took considerable development, and only after many submissions by the architect was the present design approved. The truncated shape of the ark, with the handles coming from the base, represent the portable Ark of the Covenant, which was carried through the desert before our people were permitted to enter the Promised Land.
The sliding doors of the ark, if you look carefully, show the design of a menorah. The lions and tablets above the ark have an especially interesting tale. They were part of the millwork contract; however, the architect felt they should be done by a professional sculptor. Mr. Rosenberg, the millwork contractor, who was from the European school of cabinet-makers, was not happy to give up the privilege. He told us not to worry – he would “not make the lions to look like lambs,” but he finally yielded.
Donald DeLue was a well-known sculptor and friend of Mr. Sternfeld. He agreed, as a personal favor to Mr. Sternfeld, to do the design and modeling of the lions and tablets for $200. This amount barely covered the materials he used, let alone the three weeks of his own time. From the models, a wood-carving shop made the figures in mahogany for the sum of $500. The results were outstanding. They have that powerful muscular feeling, which is so characteristic of Mr. DeLue’s work.
Another example of his sculpture can be seen in the large outdoor bas relief panels of the Court House and Post Office building at Ninth and Market Streets. The long fluted wooden panels alongside the ark, represent a concept of the draperies used to conceal the Aron Kodesh from view in the Temple.
Along with the traditional, Mr. Sternfeld included modern thinking and technology. Our Eternal Light represents a satellite circling the jewel-starred earth, though space exploration was in its infancy at that time. The two candelabra, on the sides of the bimah, are made of Plexiglas. They use the principle of fiber optics to bring the light from a remote source to the tips of the branches.
These sketches have taken us up to the completion of our sanctuary building in 1954. To bring the costs within our budget, many features and requirements of a complete building had been deleted from the base contract. For several years we used the school building boilers to heat both the school and the sanctuary building.
We realized that they wouldn’t be adequate if all spaces were used simultaneously, but it was felt we could get by, since the school-hour needs would not be the same as the needs for religious and social functions. Later we installed a separate boiler to be used only for the sanctuary building.
Similarly, to conserve money, a 75-ton air conditioning unit was installed instead of a 125-ton unit. We knew it could not handle the sanctuary and auditorium together at peak loads, but we hoped both spaces would not be in use at the same time. It was the intention to add capacity at a later date, but so far this has not been done. The space and floor openings for a passenger elevator had been provided, but the mechanism was not installed until several years later. Other major costs, added later, were for kitchen equipment and the bride’s room.
People have found fault with some of the decisions made at the time, but with all due considerations, we ended up with a beautiful landmark building, which should serve us and the community with pride for many years to come.