Jewish Sites in Central Falls and Pawtucket

It may come as a surprise, but there was a thriving Jewish community in Pawtucket and Central Falls until the middle of the 20th Century.

It was 1905, and five orthodox Jewish men from Pawtucket signed incorporation papers for a synagogue to be called The Congregation Ohawe Shalom. The only problem was that they had no money for a building, so they were forced to worship in a variety of buildings in the city. By 1918 they had raised $80,000 to buy land on which to build a synagogue. The congregation had grown to more than 350 families, most living in Central Falls and Pawtucket. The land for the new synagogue, at the corner of High and Jackson Streets, was less than a block from the border with Central Falls.

However, before construction could begin, an old theater on the site was razed, and a three-story tenement house was moved to the back of the property. It became the venue for the congregation’s social events. The Ohawe Shalom Synagogue was dedicated in 1921, and for decades, it was the only one in the two cities. The two buildings became the lodestar for the immigrant Jewish families in the neighborhood, many of whom had arrived in this country from Eastern Europe and Russia, with no money, few skills, and little education.

The synagogue is still there, but the building behind it is gone. As the Jews migrated to the suburbs, membership sharply declined. The synagogue finally closed in the late 1970s, and today it houses the Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church.

A few blocks from the synagogue, along Central Street in Central Falls, were small stores--delis, grocery stores, even junk shops--owned by the Jewish immigrants in the neighborhood. Drive down this narrow street to see a few remaining shops, although they are no longer owned by Jews. Or you could have walked the half a mile to downtown Pawtucket to shop at Shartenberg’s, the largest department store, which was at the corner of Main Street and Park Place. The business was founded by Jacob Shartenberg, a German Jew, in the late 1800’s as The New Idea Store.

Soon after the turn of the century, it became Shartenberg’s, and for decades it remained one of the most popular and prosperous businesses downtown.

By the end of the 20th century, the building had been demolished and replaced by a parking garage. But for more than a century, Mr. Shartenberg and other Jews who emigrated from Germany in the mid-to-late 1800’s played an important role in the business life of downtown Pawtucket.

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291 High St, Pawtucket, RI 02860 ~ The former site of the Ohawe Shalom Synagogue is now home to the Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church. Please contact the church for information about public access to the site.