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March-April News from Broad Street Synagogue

Stained-glass windows

Stained-glass windows

On the last Friday of March, we were very pleased to welcome Qes Efraim Zion-Lawi on a tour of the synagogue. Qes Efraim, one of the leaders of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community, is the first qes (Ethiopian Jewish priest or religious leader) to be born in Israel. His visit to 688 Broad Street, part of a weeklong trip to Rhode Island and Connecticut, was an opportunity for Qes Efraim to teach about the traditions and customs of Ethiopian Jews and for him to learn about Rhode Island’s Jewish community. Qes Efraim was accompanied on the tour by a representative of the Israeli consulate. Providence College senior Lizzy Tangney, who has been helping out with the project throughout the semester, joined the tour and writes:

The opportunity to be present during the Qes’ tour was a unique and slightly overwhelming experience. Having just began studying the traditions of the Jewish religion, being in the presence of such an esteemed and respected leader was quite powerful. As we slowly made our way deeper into the heart of the synagogue, and as the impact and evidence of the damage became more and more clear, so too did the concern and emotions of our guests.

I found myself quietly observing the Qes and those with him, a representative of the Israeli consulate, a local Jewish boy whose family hosted the Qes, and a member of Beth Sholom. Although most of their interactions were not in English and I could not understand them, it was incredible to simply witness the exchange that occurred. It was a window into a culture that I know very little about, and it inspired me to continue my studies in this area of concentration, to understand the traditions of which they spoke, and the dynamic that exists in Israel today.

The Qes mentioned that it was his first time ever leaving his country, first time on an airplane! Learning that the Broad Street Synagogue was one of his destinations during his first trip abroad reenforced the idea that the work we are doing is so very important, and may have implications much larger than simply within the Providence community. 

To learn more about Qes Efraim’s visit, read this column by Shai Afsai, a member of Providence’s Congregation Beth Sholom and a valuable contributor to our oral history project.

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Thank you again to everyone who turned out during last month’s Purim celebration! We were delighted to be joined by community members and people from all around Providence, including parents and children in wonderful costumes, students, and storyteller Mark Binder. Stay tuned for more information about our upcoming post-Passover event. Read more about the Purim event in Lizzy’s blog post.

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About a month ago, Lucie Searle and Steve Durkee published a ProJo op-ed highlighting the role of historic preservation as key to Providence’s future growth. While their article focuses primarily on downtown, they stress Providence’s historic architecture as one of its strongest assets. We at Broad Street Synagogue welcome this call to action as we continue to work to find a new use for this 103-year-old structure. Unfortunately, the neglect and subsequent deterioration of this building over the past few years has reinforced the perception that, as multiple neighbors have told us, “this never would have happened on the East Side.” The building’s recent deterioration has contributed to the feeling that buildings on the South Side are simply not on the city’s priority list.

But as Searle and Durkee write, the entire city, from Broad Street to Benefit Street, needs to be included in a development and growth process that celebrates the city’s historic assets:

Historic preservation both sustains and relies on healthy cities. The tremendously rich architecture that we enjoy in Providence exists largely because of the prosperity of the past. Today, that architectural legacy is one of our strongest assets and economic drivers because it distinguishes us and makes us special. But to maintain that legacy, the entire city needs to prosper.

We couldn’t agree more.

Purim Celebration: Recap

by Lizzy Tangney

I remember the first time I took a tour of the synagogue, more than two years ago, as a sophomore at Providence College. Now as a senior, I’m so excited to be a part of the project. Each time I visit the building itself, I am struck by the incredible power and strength it seems to possess. The potential is almost tangible, visible to everyone who has had the opportunity to see it.

Equally as impressive is the sense of community that has emerged through the revitalization process, a community that came together last Sunday for a celebration of Purim, a Jewish holiday. The event was held at the Westfield Lofts, and the turn was quite impressive, more than forty people in attendance. Parents and children, dressed up in their best costumes, along with community organizers, students from Brown and Providence College, professors, and even a storyteller were present.

Mark Binder is a Jewish storyteller that helped explain Purim to those of us unfamiliar with the holiday. Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar, to commemorate the unsuccessful attempt by the King’s advisor Haman to kill all the Jewish people. According to the Book of Esther, Haman’s plan was foiled by Mordecai and Esther, his adopted daughter who was also the Queen. It is a classic story of good triumphing over evil, and the idea that standing up for what is right, even when it is risky or uncomfortable, must be done. There are strong themes of advocacy and integrity throughout the story; themes that are mirrored in the continuing revitalization project of the synagogue. Mark Binder acted out the Purim story, even involving his audience to make it more interactive. For those who celebrate the holiday, it was a great way to come together to share in traditions, food, and games. For those unfamiliar with Purim and its history, this event provided an opportunity to learn about the Jewish tradition, as well as meet new friends and catch up with old ones.

For me, as a global studies major with a concentration in religious diversity and a strong interest in multi-cultural relationships, the event brought so many of my interests together in one place. The Broad Street Synagogue is a valuable source of religious and cultural history, while the community that has developed around the project is composed of a variety of people of different ages, cultures, religions and backgrounds. Yet all see the importance of the building and the larger idea behind it.

The Purim event served as a fun celebration for everyone involved, and equally as important, served as an opportunity to foster the growing community surrounding the Broad Street Synagogue project. Every small event such as this one promotes conversations and interactions that will maintain and add to the energy surrounding the revitalization. This is truly a community effort and needs the help and voices of every single one of us. After the event, tours were given at the synagogue, allowing new people to explore the space for the first time. The rehabilitation and revitalization of this building is a long term project but one of the most important aspects is the community conversation that will emerge through the process. Keep an eye out for future events this spring and summer!

We’d like to thank Mark Binder again for coming. If you are interested in purchasing any of his products, his books and audio are available on Amazon and iTunes in print, CD, eBook and audio download. His latest eBook, “Cinderella Spinderella” is on sale through the end of March (info@cinderellaspinderella.com) and signed copies of his works are available at http://lightpublications.com/store. Additionally, if you’d like to get a free story every month, check out: http://bit.ly/storyamonthnews.

Purim

The Mourner's Kaddish

Page found at the synagogue with the Mourner’s Kaddish

“So much of this is remnants of the war,” a former member of this synagogue told me once. He believed that the number of Holocaust survivors who were members, who found spiritual refuge in this place, was one reason Congregation Shaare Zedek (here 1955-2006) kept going as long as it did. As Purim – the annual festival observed this weekend – and Passover, both celebrating the deliverance of Jews from persecution, approach, it’s worth thinking about this synagogue as a place of shelter.

This building provided a spiritual home for immigrants and refugees in both its Reform and Orthodox incarnations. After the Nazis came to power, Temple Beth El (on this site from 1911-54 and traditionally a largely German Jewish congregation) and its rabbi, William Braude, worked to bring refugees to the United States. One German emigre, the composer Heinrich Schalit, served for five years as its music director. And while we don’t have exact numbers, there certainly were refugees and survivors who attended services at Shaare Zedek throughout much of its existence.

Today, while many migrants and refugees to this traditionally immigrant neighborhood in this immigrant city come from other places – from Cambodia to El Salvador to Liberia – and from other religious traditions, other religious and community spaces serve similar functions. They can be places of celebration, grief, joy, devotion in spite of everything – like the single, crinkled prayer book page with the Mourner’s Kaddish, proclaiming faith in spite of loss, found inside this building.

Purim is supposed to commemorate “the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day” (Esther 9:22). We hope that in future, a revitalized 688 Broad can help contribute to joy as a center for community – for people of all faiths or no faith. But no building can accomplish this by itself. After all, as another interviewee pointed out, a building is four walls. The community makes the refuge.

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On another Purim note, please join us this Sunday for the Friends of the Broad Street Synagogue’s celebration! The event will be held at the Westfield Lofts, 230 Dexter Street, from 1-2:30 and will include holiday snacks, kids’ games, and a special guest storyteller. Bring a Purim costume! All ages, faiths, and backgrounds are welcome.

Finally, a few more artifacts from the synagogue. Special thanks to María Quintero, Erendina Delgadillo, Adrian Moore, and Shana Weinberg.

Deposit record

Financial records with original deposit on the building.

Talmud Torah bids

Envelope containing contractors’ bids to construct the Talmud Torah (Hebrew school). The building was completed in 1958.

1985 inventory

1985 inventory of congregation’s assets.

Records of payment received by a member, 1985

Records of yahrtzeit (anniversary of a loved one’s death) donation to Shaare Zedek from a member, 1985. Jews observing the yahrtzeit are encouraged to give extra to charity.

The Rejects

Plate found at synagogue

1950s silver plate – a birthday gift found at the synagogue (shown upside down).

The objects we see at Broad Street Synagogue now are rejects. They served a purpose for someone once – why were they kept in the first place? But clearly, they weren’t considered to be worth taking away, either when the building closed down as a synagogue or, a few years ago, when people began to live in the building and started tearing through it looking for things of value.

Indeed, most objects here don’t scream “valuable.” Many are actually pretty boring: records of bills paid and donations received; different bids from contractors for repair projects; calendars and old newspapers. Yet some are more unusual and evocative – the prayer book issued to American Jewish soldiers in World War I; a beautiful silver plate with writing on the underside that shows it was a gift for a child’s first birthday.

As we continue to catalog the objects from the building and work to find them a new and more suitable home (with the hope that one day they can return to a revitalized 688 Broad), we try to approach them with a different sense of value. That’s not to say that we bring some kind of unique insight. It just means that we try to look at each object, even the most mundane bill, as a way to explore the larger stories this place represents and as grounds for future research. Take the plate: who does it name? What is its religious significance? Why might it have been left here?

We’d like to think that focusing on the numinous – the transcendent, the enduring, and of course the sacred – value of these objects honors the traditions of this shul. Some of its younger members remember it being like a museum, full of books and other objects that were old and a bit mysterious. What’s left of these artifacts might not have “value” as we usually think about it, but the fact that they have survived means something, tells us something beyond the bland, dry facts they often represent. They are the synagogue’s rejects, and they are its history too.

Below are a few photographs of what we’ve found. Know something about anything pictured here? Please contact us at broadstreetsynagogue@gmail.com.

Seal of Shaare Zedek

Seal of Congregation Shaare Zedek, which occupied the building from 1955-2006.

Maxwell House Hagadah, 1939

Maxwell House Hagadah, 1939.

Broad Street Syngagogue Talmud Torah today

The Talmud Torah today.

Abridged Prayer Book for Jews in the military

Abridged Prayer Book for Jews in the military, 1917.

Ladybug pin

Ladybug pin.

Maimonides reader

Small Hebrew book with image of Maimonides on cover.

Whose Story Is It?

Temple Beth El in the 1930s

Temple Beth El in the 1930s (Providence Public Library Rhode Island Collection).

Since I first visited the Broad Street Synagogue two years ago, I have been struck by the sheer weight of the stories it represents. As a longtime neighbor of the synagogue has told me, even if you have only the most glancing connection to it or have never been inside, it is still there. Through its physical presence, it bears witness to more than one hundred years of events, the small accumulated stories that become history, on the corner of Broad and Glenham. And of course, like any place, the people who shape it and whom it shapes connect it with other places and other stories in the neighborhoods of Broad Street and beyond.

Starting in the summer of 2012, I have been conducting oral history interviews with former synagogue members and neighborhood residents past and present. Currently, I am working on an online archive based on these interviews that will be made public in May. We’ll be sharing more information about this project in the coming weeks, but here’s what I envision it including:

  • a section where visitors can access stories through the voices of the synagogue’s members and neighbors past and present, including partial transcripts, audio and video;
  • a clickable map that represents these stories and the connections between this building and other places in Providence – in short, exploring the place of this building in local history;
  • a collection of images of the building and objects connected with it, including items generously shared by interviewees;
  • a timeline outlining events in the synagogue’s history, from its opening in 1911 to the recent revitalization efforts.

As with virtually any historical project, converting stories into this archive involves synthesis, narrowing down a vast amount of material into a smaller collection for publication. I will be taking excerpts from conversations that I think best reveal different aspects of the synagogue’s history (and of course, that interviewees have given me permission to use): memories that illuminate larger themes such as transition, division, immigration, change, continuity, and tradition. Yet for this project to reflect adequately the different experiences of the many people connected with this building for more than a century, it has to follow the spirit of the Broad Street Synagogue revitalization project as a whole. It needs to be centered on community collaboration and contribution. It should be not one story, but many stories, and as diverse, wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and accessible as possible.

For this reason, I encourage you to contact me at broadstreetsynagogue@gmail.com. Your comments, questions, and recollections about life in the vicinity of 688 Broad Street past and present will help to grow this collection of stories and images. And most importantly, it will bring in more voices about the past, present, and future of this neighborhood landmark — which is what this project is all about.

Nate Weisenberg is a master’s candidate in public humanities at Brown University. He will be posting regularly to the blog throughout the spring of 2014. You can contact him at broadstreetsynagogue@gmail.com.