The Gershman Y: A Home for the Jewish Community
401 S Broad St
For almost 150 years, the Gershman Y at 401 S Broad St has served as a cultural center for the Jewish community of Philadelphia. In 1875, smaller Jewish societies wanted a space for the entire community to learn and socialize. They established the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), which underwent many changes throughout its history. In 1924, the YMHA combined with the Young Women’s Hebrew Association (YWHA), and moved to its current location. In 1985, the YM-YWHA was renamed the Gershman Y. In 2009, the Gershman Y became its own separate establishment from other Jewish cultural centers in the city.
Much of the original programming at the YMHA was dedicated to literature, culture, and mingling. Many of the older members of the organization were interested in educational and religious programming. The younger members preferred athletics and social events. The YMHA balanced its programming and adapted to the changing interests of the Jewish community. In the early 1900s, the YMHA began offering athletics. They established intramural teams for a variety of sports, offered “free-play” hours in their gymnasium, and had a swimming pool.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, the YM-YWHA offered programs for nearly every interest. These programs included art classes, dance workshops, drama classes, lectures, music education, religious celebrations, and language classes. In the 1960s, they displayed artwork by undiscovered or lesser-known artists at the time. These artists included Allen Kaprow, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol. They also gained a reputation around this time of being a supporter of “avant-garde” art.
When the YMHA first opened, there were about 15,000 Jewish people living in Philadelphia. They were mainly of German or Portuguese descent, and came from similar wealth backgrounds. From the 1880s to the 1920s, there was an increase of Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants arriving in Philadelphia. The YMHA created programs to welcome these new members to the community, and helped them feel at home in America.
Recently, the Gershman Y has offered book talks, cooking and art classes, and a workshop called “Dancing with a Yiddish Accent.” They also focused on a couple of festivals each year. For Hanukkah, they hosted “Latkepalooza.” Latkes are traditional Jewish potato pancakes, and local Philadelphia restaurants created their own interpretations for the festival. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the Gershman Y hosted “Moo Shu Jew,” an evening of stand-up comedy and dinner in Chinatown. The Gershman Y’s most well-known program is their Jewish Film Festival. As of 2018, the program has been running for 38 years and is the second-oldest in the country. The festival is three weeks long, and screens films that depict the Jewish experience.
In 2018, The Gershman Y announced that it would be leaving the building it has called home for the past 95 years. They are rebranding themselves as The Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival (GPJFF), and will focus solely on that program. This cultural center not only offered a location for arts, entertainment, and education, but it deeply impacted and united the Jewish community of Philadelphia.