If these walls could talk…
Solomon Treital is believed to be the first Jew to settle in Woonsocket. This scholarly and deeply religious man arrived in 1866, and soon established himself as a clothier in the downtown Market Square.
Treital’s brother, Max, arrived two years later, and a few more Jews followed, but it wasn’t until the big migration of Europeans to American shores in the 1880s that a Jewish community began to take shape in Woonsocket.
By 1894, the city directory recorded 28 Jewish names, and by 1900, there were at least 65 Jews living among the 28,204 people in the growing textile-mill city.
According to the “History of Congregation B’nai Israel,” the first Jewish congregation organized in 1883 as Congregation of the Lovers of Peace. Most of the congregants were laborers, craftsmen, peddlers and merchants, and Solomon Treital was their first president.
Although they were devout, the Lovers of Peace were not wealthy, and they could not afford their own synagogue. They first worshipped in a loft over a store near Market Square, and then in a building on Main Street, and then went “from loft to loft, from meeting hall to meeting hall for one and half decades.”
At the start of the 20th century, the young congregation had grown enough in numbers and solvency for Treital to declare that the time had come to found their own house of worship.
The “History of Congregation B’nai Israel” reports that “through tremendous self-sacrifice on the part of each congregant,” the congregation in 1904 was able to purchase a vacant Presbyterian church at 200 Greene Street, giving Woonsocket’s Jewish community its first home.
The squat Queen Anne at the corner of Greene and Bernon streets had, among its selling points, a cavernous room suitable for a sanctuary and just enough room on its tiny lot to build a sukkah, or hut, for the holiday of Sukkot.
The Jewish community, newly renamed Congregation B’nai Israel, mustered its meager resources and set about remodeling the old church into a synagogue. And so it was fitting, when consecration ceremonies were held on July 31, 1904, that “citizens of all faiths were in attendance.”
By 1913, the congregation had grown to 85 members, and by 1914, the city had a very active YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association) and YWHA (Young Women’s Hebrew Association). By 1917, CBI was able to hire its first ordained rabbi.
The congregation continued to grow, albeit slowly, over the following decades, and the Greene Street synagogue thrived. The building wasn’t big enough to host all the events that the Jewish community held, so halls and homes were frequently used for social activities, but the temple was the focal point.
“It was a vibrant Jewish congregation,” said Irwin Shorr, who was among the last boys to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah in the building, on Oct. 21, 1961. “I think at the height of its existence, there were at least 200 Jewish families in Woonsocket.”
Shorr, who now lives in Olney, Maryland, said services were held in the sanctuary on the main floor, while the downstairs held a kitchen and rooms that were used for junior congregation, parties, holiday events and receptions.
Life for Woonsocket’s Jews “revolved around Jewish life when I was a kid,” Shorr said. “My Bar Mitzvah was the most important event of my life. Period.”
In 1962, Woonsocket’s Jewish community proudly dedicated its magnificent and architecturally important synagogue on Prospect Street. This new building had more than enough space to consolidate Jewish life under one roof, with room for everything from a Hebrew School to a Judaica museum.
As for the old Queen Anne, for the next 40 years or so, it was sometimes vacant and sometimes the home of religious groups, until a theater company took it over. And then, around 2000, Pastor Mike Kropman purchased the building for $30,000 for his Church of the Acts.
Kropman describes his church as non denominational. Which is why the Star of David carved into the wall above the bimah, the plaque honoring members of the 1904 “Committee on Building,” and the frame of a sturdy sukkah still stand as testament to Woonsocket’s first synagogue.