The Gershman Y traces its origins back to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), originally formed in 1875 to serve as a cultural, educational, and social meeting place for Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish community. In 1924, the YMHA merged with the Young Women’s Hebrew Society and moved to the corner of Broad and Pine Streets, as the YM & YWHA. The Y, as it was called throughout the community, quickly became the destination for experiencing a rich array of arts, cultural, educational, and social programs. In addition, the Y offered a health and fitness center, complete with an Olympic size pool, an accredited nursery school, and its own congregation.
The tradition of enriching the cultural life of the community continued throughout the years, and the Y played an important role in bringing the avant-garde cultural scene to Philadelphia, introducing the works of Pop Art artists including Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Roy Lichtenstein to Philadelphia audiences before they became household names, presenting the poetry of E.E. Cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a Happening by Allan Kaprow, and hosting such illustrious dance troupes as the Martha Graham Company. In 1985, Joel Gershman and Elaine Levitt Gershman dedicated the building at Broad and Pine Streets in honor of Joel’s parents, Charles and Elizabeth Gershman.
The year 2000 began a decade of transition for the Gershman Y. The building ownership was transferred to the University of the Arts, and the fitness center, pool, and nursery school closed. This enabled the Y to fully concentrate its focus on its arts and cultural offerings. In 2008, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia (JCCs), of which The Gershman Y had been a constituent site, elected to undergo a decentralization process, allowing each site to exclusively pursue its own mission. In September 2009, the decentralization was complete and the Gershman Y became an independent organization.
Based on this long and rich tradition, the Gershman Y has grown and thrived as a home for secular Jewish arts, culture, and dialogue. The Gershman Y offers three areas of programming: the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival (PJFF) and shorter film series, currently in their 37th season; changing art exhibitions in the Y’s Open Lens Gallery and Gershman Gallery; and a wide variety of programs and events around arts, culture, holiday celebrations, and current topics of interest.
Photos (from top): Young Men’s Hebrew Association, Southeast Corner of Broad and Pine Streets, July 1927 (photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records); Underground Film Festival at the Y (left to right): unidentified, Joan Kron, Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, Elaine Stanton, Jonas Mekas; ART1963/A New Vocabulary reception (left to right): Audrey Sabol, Sam Maitin, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Acey Wolgin, and Joan Kron; The Y swimming pool, mid-70s; A packed house for the 33rd Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival