The Smith Hill neighborhood in Providence has seen waves of immigrants over the years. The Irish were first, in the early 19th century. Now the neighborhood is almost half Hispanic and Asian, according to the 2010 census. At one time, it was the center of a sizeable Jewish community, and a single synagogue remains.
Between about 1890 and 1910, an influx of Jews from Russia came to the eastern part of Smith Hill, driven largely by increased persecution by the Russian government. As their numbers increased, they built several synagogues in the area, including one for the Congregation of the Sons of Jacob, on the corner of Douglas Avenue and Orms St., in 1906.
One hundred and eleven years later, it still stands, a solitary reminder of the thriving Jewish community that once existed there.
Inside the Sons of Jacob synagogue on a recent Tuesday, the president of the congregation, Harold Silverman, described how he came to this place, became its leader and also its caretaker, more than 30 years ago.
“I came here when I was 10 years old, and we settled in South Providence,” he said. “And when I lost my mother in the mid-70’s, I needed a synagogue to say Kaddish, which is the solemn prayer that you say for a departed person. You say it for 11 months, and then there’s another portion you say for the last month, which is 12 months."
At the Sons of Jacob Synagogue, Silverman found house of worship where he could follow the traditional Jewish mourning ritual, and he soon felt right at home.
“So, grateful for that," Silverman said, "a lot of the 'old timers' said, 'let’s give this guy the mantle.' So I took it over around the mid-80's, and I’ve been here since.”
Silverman estimates the congregation included about 75 to 80 members when he joined in the 1970’s. At its peak, Sons of Jacob had as many as 300 families, but that was earlier, probably in the 1940’s. By the 50’s and through the 60’s, demographic changes in the neighborhood spurred a reduction in the Jewish population, and the construction of Interstate 95 brought about almost complete elimination of the commercial district around the synagogue.
I asked Silverman to describe what the neighborhood was like back in its heyday, and he took out a list of dozens of establishments that existed at the time along Douglas Ave.
"Torgan’s drug store, Berman’s candy store, Haran’s butcher shop, Cohn’s dairy," Silverman read out loud, and the list went on and on.
As he spoke each name in turn, it was as if he were reciting Kaddish for the departed neighborhood.
These days, the Sons of Jacob synagogue sits isolated on its corner, facing a highway overpass. Everyday, no matter what the weather, Silverman opens the doors for services, but there are many mornings he prays alone.
Still, there is reason for hope, in the form of a plan for a Rhode Island Jewish Museum, to be housed in the Sons of Jacob synagogue. President of the effort, Joshua Jasper, says the need is there.
“I know where the hole in the Jewish community is,” said Jasper. “And there’s really no history gallery, history museum, art gallery. That doesn’t really exist within the Jewish community per se in Rhode Island.”
Jasper says the effort has already been launched to bring this about. Funds are being raised, and plans are being drawn up to combine an active synagogue with a museum and community space.
“My vision for the building, my personal vision, is that you look at it as a piece of art," said Jasper. "What does it represent? It represents, in three words, Jewish, immigrant, Providence.”
The Sons of Jacob Synagogue is on the National Register of Historic Places, due in part to a surprising and rarely seen second-floor sanctuary, with high ceilings and historic murals depicting animals and the mystical Jewish zodiac, all lit by a crystal chandelier.
“It’s not fancy on the outside,” said Jasper. “But it sort of sticks with you, you want to see it, you want to go inside. Personally, I see the building, inside and out, as one giant art piece.”
The public will have a chance to see the building, inside and out, on Sunday, June 25th. The organization Doors Open Rhode Island is holding an open house from 12 to 3, for anyone interested in seeing this unique space. Sunday’s event also features klezmer music and President Harold Silverman, ready to talk about the synagogue’s history, and its plans for the future.