Daniel Rubin: Protesters say South Philadelphia senior center still has life

The folks desperate to save the Stiffel senior center were handed a tough numbers problem this spring: Raise $200,000 in two months, or say good-bye to the multicultural mecca at Marshall and Porter.

With only $20,000 in hand this week, and the June 30 deadline looming, the South Philly center's supporters decided to pose a question of their own:

What do you get when you hand placards to three dozen elderly people and ask them to walk in a circle for an hour in the noonday sun?

Media coverage.

Which was the whole idea behind Tuesday's sit-in.

"Let's make some noise, people," organizer Laurel Katz said, mic in hand, as she addressed the troops gathered inside the center just before 11 a.m.

Harry Azoff's eyes lit up when he saw the small, rectangular placard that read, "We're not dead yet."

"We just look that way," the 87-year-old retired jewelry maker said, grabbing the sign and heading for the pavement, where his friends were already in mid-song.

2-4-6-8. We don't want to relocate.

Estelle Goldstein was sitting by herself on a wooden bench. The 73-year-old has Parkinson's and fought trembling hands to paint her own poster - a wondrous city scene of the center, streets paved with dollar signs, and the plea "Open your heart and wallet."

The 83-year-old building is in rough shape. The roof and boiler need replacing, which would cost $400,000, according to the center's board, which manages the Klein JCC and the Stiffel Center.

On top of that, the center hemorrhages about $200,000 a year. So the board has voted to close the place by the end of July if supporters can't cover a year's losses and secure pledges for substantially more.

The board organized two committees - for fund-raising and making the transition to other centers. Practical, yes. But some of the protesters groused that when they talked to potential donors, they learned the transition folks had already approached them.

It made supporters feel the fix was in.

Katz said the savethestiffel.org committee called the protest to show the city that the center still has a chance.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people think the closing is a done deal, or that we need $600,000. We're trying to raise attention that we're hurting in South Philadelphia."

Stiffel began in 1928 as the Jewish Education Center No. 2 and welcomed immigrants from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. Today, the clientele is equal parts Jewish and Italian with increasing numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and Southeast Asians.

The protest was carried out in several languages. Four women carried signs in Vietnamese that translated to "Please do not close the door."

Phuong Duong's sign was also in French. The 73-year-old pharmacist said she had found the place a year and a half ago. "Every day I come here and exercise and enjoy the last period of my life."

Evelyn Morowitz's message read, "We codgers love this community place. We shall not be moved - out." Several days a week the 84-year-old former teacher travels an hour by bus to the center from her Far Northeast condo. The Klein center is closer, but Morowitz prefers Stiffel's camaraderie.

"Camaraderie?" asked Rosina Sapienza, who was listening. "That's a nice word. You learn something from teachers every day."

Sapienza, also 84, has lived in the neighborhood for six decades. She said that at Stiffel people have always welcomed her.

"I got to learn the Jewish language and food. I learned to make matzoth ball soup. I wish they had this place when my mother was alive. You come here, kill a few hours, talk about your aches and pains."

At noon, the show ended and the protesters walked inside for lunch - kosher Chinese chicken and vegetables.

"You did good, Harry," someone called down the stairs to Azoff.

"It was exciting and fun," he said. "I hope it works."


Daniel Rubin:

To see a video of the Stiffel center protest, go to www.philly.com/seniorcenter

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com