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It's A Mitzvah! Jewish Life In The Delaware Valley

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Fabric Row
FabricRow: Albert Myerson has owned and operated Kinkus Fabrics, Inc. on Fabric Row for 32 years.

4th Street Deli
4th Street Deli: Dave Auspitz (5th from left), grandson of the founder of the famous 4th Street Deli, with fellow Fabric Row business owners.

Marina and Lev Furman
Marina & Lev Furman: Once "Refuseniks," Marina and Lev Furman managed to flee Leningrad in 1987. They now live in Bala Cynwyd with their two daughters.

1930's Neighborhood
1930's Neighborhood: Margolis Kosher Wine at 4th and Monroe Streets in South Philadelphia, circa 1933.

WHYY Press Room

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...Airs on Wednesday, December 4 at 8 p.m. on TV12...

IT'S A MITZVAH! JEWISH LIFE IN THE DELAWARE VALLEY, an original WHYY multi-media production that starts with a television special airing Wednesday, December 4 at 8 p.m. on TV12, tells the extraordinary story of the Delaware Valley's Jewish community over the last 75 years.

IT'S A MITZVAH!* examines how Jewish immigrants, who came to the area in poverty, built vibrant communities and businesses, overcame institutionalized discrimination and eventually found acceptance. The program also highlights significant contributions the Jewish community has made, and continues to make, to the region's culture.

"WHYY wanted to share the history of this determined and resilient community," said Ed Cunningham, WHYY producer. "The one-hour program features dozens of personal stories -- past and present." It also includes rare archival footage and photos to provide viewers with a vivid picture of what life was like.

The program begins in the roaring '20s, during the height of Jewish immigration to the region, when the number of immigrants rose to more than 250,000. "All of them came together with the goal of opportunity...freedom to exercise their culture and their religion," said Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ph.D., President of Gratz College, in the program.

IT'S A MITZVAH! also investigates the obstacles that many Jewish immigrants faced, such as the Immigration Restriction Act passed in 1924, which dramatically limited the flow of newcomers to the region. During the Great Depression, "overcrowding" became an excuse to prevent Jewish immigrants from obtaining prominent jobs and attending prestigious schools. As a result, many Jews started their own businesses, usually in retail.

"The Jews were, in many ways, prepared to open retail establishments from their prior experience in Eastern Europe," said Dr. Beth Wenger, Katz Family Chair in American Jewish History of the University of Pennsylvania.

IT'S A MITZVAH! spotlights the merchants on 4th Street in Philadelphia. Many Jewish-owned businesses there were in the "needle trade," which is how 4th Street became known as Fabric Row. In the early 1900s, these shops collectively had the largest selection of silk and woolens. Many of these businesses continue to prosper today and are operated by second, third, and in some cases, fourth generation families.

The program also traces the growth of Jewish neighborhoods, such as the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia, which were often self-contained communities. "The clothes shopping we did was in the neighborhood. All of the food shopping we did in the neighborhood," said Elliot Rosen of his life in Wynnefield. "The doctor was right around the corner," and so was the synagogue.

Wynnefield was the original home of Har Zion, the beloved Jewish temple built in 1924, which was the centerpiece of the local Jewish community. "It dominated the community," said Gerald Wolpe, former Senior Rabbi of Har Zion. "If anything had to be done -- a new educational endeavor, a new charity need," the Har Zion congregants led that endeavor.

IT'S A MITZVAH! explores how some Jewish families spent their time away from work. Many would take summer vacations in Atlantic City. "Atlantic City was a very popular spot," said Frank Brodsky, former Wynnefield resident. "We always made it a point to get in front of the Chelsea Hotel because you knew you were going to see not only friends from you own neighborhood -- you would meet a lot of people from other neighborhoods as well."

Another favorite pastime was watching the legendary Jewish basketball team, the SPHAs, organized in 1918. Using four letters that stood for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, the SPHAs played in semi-pro leagues that were precursors to the National Basketball Association (NBA). According to basketball great Louis "Red" Klotz, "To make the SPHAs team -- that was every young Jewish ballplayer in South Philadelphia's dream."

The onset of World War II marked a turning point for Jews. "It is very clear that the Holocaust represented a wake up call for many of the people of American society as a whole," said Rosenbaum, Gratz College president.

Subsequent events, such as the birth of the state of Israel in 1948, the election of Philadelphia Mayor Joseph S. Clark in 1951 and the 1960s civil rights movement, helped Jews find broader acceptance in society. According to the program, by the 1970s, thousands of Jewish families had found a level of social and economic comfort within the mainstream.

IT'S A MITZVAH! addresses the significant role the local Jewish community had in helping Soviet Jews, known as "Refuseniks," immigrate to Israel and America. Local residents Connie and Joe Smukler tell how they became involved in the plight of Refuseniks, such as Lev and Marina Furman, who fled from Leningrad in 1987 and now live in Bala Cynwyd with their two daughters.

The program highlights the community's philanthropy. The Kimmel Center, The Annenberg Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building and the revitalization of The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware, are all examples of projects that have received significant support from the Jewish community. The program includes a discussion about the renovation of the opera house with Toni Young, Delaware historian and activist, and author of Becoming American, Remaining Jewish: The Story of Wilmington Delaware's First Jewish Community.

IT'S A MITZVAH! also looks at a growing trend among people today who are seeking to reconnect with their Jewish heritage. Rabbi Jerome P. David, Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, discusses a return to tradition and the rituals of Judaism. People are choosing to become observant of their Jewish heritage as they recognize the importance of being religious in today's society, said Rabbi David.

IT'S A MITZVAH! JEWISH LIFE IN THE DELAWARE VALLEY will be rebroadcast on Monday, December 9 at 9:00 p.m. Additional content will be available on 91 FM, www.whyy.org and on a DVD to be released in 2003.

IT'S A MITZVAH! was produced by WHYY-TV. Trudi Brown is executive producer, Ed Cunningham is producer, Gloria Shimkin is script writer and principal researcher and Mark Baker is image researcher.

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