Summer Travel: Jewish Philadelphia
Summer Travel: Jewish Philadelphia

Summer Travel: Jewish Philadelphia

It once billed itself as the City of Brotherly Love. Then it was the City that Loves you Back. This summer, the motto is “Philly’s more fun when you sleep over.”

But for New Yorkers, perhaps the best appellation for Philadelphia is the Forgotten City Next Door.

Though one of America’s largest and most historic cities, Philadelphia can be overshadowed by its proximity to the Big Apple.

This Fourth of July provides an apt reminder that the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed 233 years ago remains one of America’s greatest treasures – and that a long holiday weekend makes Philadelphia a great place for a getaway.

It’s a city you can visit without having to set foot in an airport, sit in traffic, or rent a car: It’s just an hour and a quarter by train from midtown Manhattan.

It’s also chock-full of historic sites, magnificent museums, trendy nightspots and beautiful neighborhoods. It’s affordable, it’s walkable and you can reach it in time for Friday night dinner without having to leave work early in New York.

I arrived there on a recent Friday with a light suitcase and a heavy itinerary. Though I didn’t manage to squeeze it all in, Philly’s proximity means I can go back whenever I please.

After checking into my hotel downtown – the Loews Philadelphia, at 12th and Market – I hightailed it over to historic Mikveh Israel synagogue for Friday night prayers. The Spanish-Portuguese service, located in what’s known as the Synagogue of the American Revolution and followed by a Chinese-food dinner, was an exercise in cultural diversity. The tunes and service were a bit unfamiliar to my Ashkenazic ear, but the congregants’ warmth and insistence that I stay for dinner made me feel right at home.

I davened behind Sen. Arlen Specter’s row (he’s a member) and ate dinner with African-American congregants whose renditions of the Birkat Hamazon conjured up a delightful sound that was half High Holiday melody, half old Negro spiritual.

The only downside to staying for the shul’s dinner was that it left little room for my second impromptu supper – a Chabad-hosted gathering at the Jewish Art Center in Philadelphia’s Old City cultural district.

On the first Friday of every month, the Old City’s art galleries stay open late, with art-lovers strolling in and out. At the Jewish Art Center at 119 North 3rd St., they come for the art and stay for the free food and Jewish atmosphere. Nearly 100 people – many passersby who just stumbled in – found themselves at tablecloth-covered tables replete with chicken, Israeli salads and wine.

When more patrons happened by, new tables and place settings materialized almost as if out of thin air. The new diners joined in the singing and general revelry, pausing only when the hosts quieted the room to relate a Chasidic tale or share some words of Torah. Creating a traditional Shabbat dinner in an unorthodox setting with such a diverse crowd is no small feat, but it’s pulled off month after month seemingly without a hitch by hosts Rabbi Menachem Schmidt and Rabbi Zev and Chana Baram.

The following day, after another service at Mikveh Israel, I politely declined invitations to lunch and instead spent my Shabbat afternoon visiting some American historic sites. Fee free and within walking distance of my hotel, there was plenty to do.

I started at Independence Hall, hopped over to the Liberty Bell, and spent some time at the National Constitution Center (tickets required), which features moving exhibits and performances about the democratic ideas and ideals that shaped America. Next year, the neighborhood will get a new museum, the five-story National Museum of American Jewish History, currently under construction.

Outside the museums, visitors can get some sense of what the city looked like two centuries ago simply by walking around Philadelphia’s historic neighborhoods. They feature many of the homes and structures built during the first decades of American independence, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture old Ben Franklin emerging from one of the picturesque brick homes in Society Hill and making his way down the city’s leafy streets.

When my legs tired, I returned to the Loews and relaxed in my room on the 32nd floor, enjoying fabulous twilight views of the city, the Delaware River and neighboring New Jersey. While the Loews is a terrific place to stay – comfortable, centrally located and situated in the historic Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) building that, at the time of its construction in 1932, was the city’s first international-style, modernist high-rise building – you don’t have to stay at the Loews for great views of Philadelphia.

You can survey the city from atop City Hall, which offers panoramic views of the entire area from a perch high above Philadelphia.

The following day I visited one of the most curious sights visible from City Hall – the imposing Eastern State Penitentiary.

Opened in 1829, the prison was the nation’s first true penitentiary – a place designed to promote correctional reform and rehabilitation rather than merely detain and punish prisoners. It quickly became a model for prisons all over the world, and held such famous criminals as Al Capone.

It was closed in 1971 but for many years remained a blight in the middle of a major metropolitan city. Then, in 1988, it reopened to the public for the first time, and the prison gradually evolved into the museum it is today. Detail-packed self-guided audio tours take you through the prison’s eerie hallways and cells, telling the fascinating story of the prison, the people it housed and the debate it stirred in America.

Today, Eastern State is also one of Philadelphia’s Jewish tourist sites. Earlier this year, the penitentiary completed its painstaking restoration of the prison synagogue. The audio tour and an exhibition tell the story of the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue and the prisoners who used it, as well as how the shul was restored.

I needed to clear my head when I stumbled out of Eastern State, so I walked the few blocks to the small Rodin Museum on 22nd St., the largest Rodin collection outside of Paris, which movie theater magnate Jules Mastbaum gave to the city in the 1920s.

Philadelphia’s main museum attraction, aside from its historic sites, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which features one of the country’s largest collections. It’s also situated in Fairmount Park on the scenic Schuykill River, where you can take a picnic and watch college teams row their skulls up and down the river. If you’re so inclined, you can also rent a boat yourself – or take a hike in the park’s 9,200 acres.

When you’re ready to go home after a weekend of sightseeing, there’s no need to fret: You can avoid sitting in that long, hot traffic jam late on a Sunday afternoon. Just take the train.

For more information about visiting Philadelphia, visit