In the beginning of West Philadelphia’s development during the late 1800s, the neighborhood was predominately upper-class Jewish.
However, in the past century, the demographics changed as much of that original community moved out and a new one entered. The new mostly consisted of middle-class African-Americans whose religions are predominately Christian and Muslim. Despite the incoming religions and racial diversity the interesting ambiance of the neighborhood has remained.
As the area began to grow in population, the number of synagogues increased as well. During that time, the Jewish community was at its peak. There were at least six synagogues and only a couple of Catholic churches.
However, the 1960s came and turned the neighborhood around as it began to transition into a different demographic due more African-Americans moving into the area. Since then, not only has the dominate ethnicity changed, but more religious denominations have also moved into the area making Overbrook Farms and Wynnefield rich with various forms of Christianity, Muslim and other religious faiths.
Rabbi Amiel Novoseller, whose family had resided in the neighborhood for two generations, grew up in Wynnefield during the time when it was going through this transformation.
“Prior to my being born, it was indeed a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. The public schools at that time were 99 percent Jewish. The middle high school and Overbrook High also had a sizable amount of Jewish students. By the time I was born in the ’50s, the area I was living in here was not predominately Jewish. It was all white with a sizable Catholic population,” Novoseller said.
Novoseller’s parents, who were Russian immigrants, opened their home as a synagogue to the remaining Jewish community because members of many of the older synagogues had been moving out. As of today, Novoseller’s home is one of the only operating synagogues in Overbrook Farms. It’s called Beth Tovin and it opened in 1964.
There is an array of ideas as to why this demographic change occurred but no one seems to be able to pinpoint the exact reason.
Patrick Andrews, who is the deputy secretary at the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship Mosque, said he believes that a major reason for the shift is the closing of the steam plant that used to provide heat for all of the mansions in Wynnefield.
“I think that when the old steam factory closed down, many of the people who lived here had to move out because it was very costly to install a new form of heat ventilation. Therefore, it was just easier to find a new place that already had the modern additions as opposed to having to completely remodel,” Andrews said.
Whatever the reason for why people started moving out, it allowed for varying religious congregations to start moving in. One of the main reasons why this was able to happen is because the property value was getting so cheap especially for the size and space that was available.
“It worked perfectly for us because we paid so little for a space that was able to fit our fellowship meetings and we were able to build a Mosque,” Andrews said.
Today the multireligious community has at least 15 different congregations that consist of Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Pentecostals and many more.
Wynnefield was the site of the 2011 Philadelphia Interfaith Walk. This annual event was formulated after 9/11 to bring people of different faiths together to promote better comprehension of different religions.
Even though Overbrook Farms and Wynnefield’s wide variation of religious organizations in such a small geographic area seems like it would be overwhelming, local residents and other local religious groups do not seem to mind.
“It doesn’t bother us that us we have so many other religious groups here. If you really think about it, we all celebrate almost the same thing. I think that as long as we try to live by good example, there is nothing wrong with having so many different religions,” said Sharon Albergotti, who is the parish manager at St. Barbara’s Catholic Church.
Even though Novoseller has seen his congregation grow smaller over the years, not even he seems to mind the expansion of religious views in the area.
“All of these religions are a way of life. We’re all together on this earth and we all feel good about helping one another in the ways to better the community so we have no problem with any of our other religious neighbors,” Novoseller said.
–The article has been corrected to reflect that Beth Tovin is in Overbrook Farms, not Wynnefield.