Once there were many synagogues all over Providence; some were tiny and some were grand edifices. This story is about the oldest synagogue still in use in Providence. It is being renovated as the new home of the Rhode Island Jewish Museum – stay tuned!
The founders of the Sons of Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue, had a vision: a soaring edifice in the North End of Providence that would be a symbol of their prosperity and place in the new world.
Having fled the pogroms in Russia and Poland and unrest in Austria in the late 1800s, they were determined to prosper in Providence. Their first synagogue was begun in 1896 when a small group of men met on an upper floor of a house on Shawmut Street and Chalkstone Avenue, right in the middle of a dense Jewish population. Those founders then purchased land on the corner of Douglas and Orms Street, and in 1906 finished construction on the first floor. At a cost of $50,000, they now had a home!
In 1906 Sons of Jacob was not the only synagogue in the neighborhood. The surrounding blocks were filled with Jewish families and businesses, and there were over two dozen houses of worship chartered in the neighborhood, then called the North End and now Smith Hill. However, as the demographics changed, the smaller congregations gave their scrolls to Sons of Jacob and joined themselves to this, more substantial, group.
In 1922, the upper floors were added to accommodate the worshippers; the second floor was for the men, and the third floor for the women, as is the custom for separate seating for men and women in Orthodox congregations. The finished building, designed by Harry Marshak, a local architect, was modeled on a building erected in 1836 in Kassel, West Germany, thus giving another tie to the founders’ former lives. With a substantial building, Rabbi Isaac Blik became the first full-time spiritual leader.
Examine the first floor with its murals around the Ark. Look at the names inscribed on the windows and walls. How proud they were of their new-found success! Go upstairs and marvel at the ceiling medallions depicting the zodiac. The pictures over the front bimah, or speaker’s platform, describe Perkei Avot (teachings of the fathers). The huge chandelier, with its massive weight and brilliant light, adds gravity and grace to the structure. These incredible illustrations, as well as the Zodiac scherenschnitte (cut paper work), were done by Sam Shore, the first president of the synagogue after it moved to Douglas Avenue.
As time went on, the area changed. One factor was the construction of Routes 146 and I-95, when a huge swath of buildings was destroyed and people were forced to move. Another factor was the increasing wealth of the residents, and their desire to live in more up-scale areas. Some went to the suburbs of Cranston and Warwick, and others to the East Side of Providence.
While the people moved, the building remained. The vibrant community was no more. Even while a minyan, the gathering of 10 Jewish men over the age of 13 to have public prayer, continued to be held most mornings, the building gradually deteriorated. Without a thriving community willing to do repairs, problems with the roof and buttresses arose.
The Rhode Island Jewish Museum was founded in an attempt to save the building as an artifact of great cultural importance. It is the last surviving and active synagogue of that era in Providence. When repurposed as a Museum, its legacy will be saved for future generations.