Richard Zacks

Child at Temple Beth El

Richard Zacks: My name is Richard Zacks. My family lived in various places in Providence. But during the time that I was involved with Temple Beth El on Broad Street, they lived in South Providence not far from Roger Williams Park, off Broad Street. I went to both Sunday school, Hebrew school, studied for my bar mitzvah and eventually was confirmed, all at the old Broad Street Beth El.

Both of my parents were nominally active in Beth El. My father actually was born in Russia, came here as an infant. But to be American was in their eyes not to be really observant Jewish. Those two things were in conflict for them.

Even though they were not particularly observant, religious, they thought it was very important that I as their son know what Judaism was, and know that I was a Jew.

The only temple my parents ever belonged to was Beth El. They were members there probably from the time I was nine or ten years old until they died. Both of them helped to move the temple library, a big project.

A woman by the name of Pincus, Mattie Pincus, enlisted me and we catalogued, boxed all the books and then helped to move them over. She knew where everything was. It always struck me when we were packing up to move that it had not really been very well organized originally, but you had somebody there who essentially had put every paper and every book where it was and she knew exactly where everything was. It was not the Dewey Decimal System, but it was her system.

I think for some people it was quite an emotional thing. There were people very attached to the old building and many memories there. As a boy of ten to fifteen years old, it was my thought that it had always been there. It always looked like that. There was nothing particularly unusual about it. The sanctuary was quite attractive. It was tall inside. It was a big space, a lot of seats. It was what I thought that a synagogue looked like because it was the only one I really knew intimately.

Rabbi Braude was a remarkable, really very, very well-educated and interesting man who I was very close to. He was just an impressive scholar.

Rabbi Braude really believed that young people could do everything. We used to run the Saturday morning service. I mean, he was there, but he would let us conduct the Saturday morning services. There were two or three of us that did it quite regularly. I now lead the minyan once a week over at Beth El. I started doing that when I was about eleven years old.

He was somebody who was very, very eager to teach and explain. He would discuss the Torah portions with us. He would discuss the morality of things that were going on. He was very involved in those days in the protests against segregation. It was a very personal relationship with a real scholar.

I was in a junior high school, Roger Williams Junior High School. It’s on Prairie Avenue. I and a couple of friends who were also going to both a Hebrew class and an afternoon class in the middle of the week — it was probably Wednesday or Thursday — we would simply walk after school up to Broad Street.

Broad Street was in those days a fairly well-established commercial area. There were buildings that had been manufacturing. I remember walking by where Cross Pens started. They had a building on Broad Street.

There was a Willard Avenue shopping area that was mostly all Jewish shops. There were a number of kosher butchers, there were delicatessens, there were lots and lots of Jewish stores. My parents used to go there to shop, and I can remember going there. But you didn’t walk by it going from my school to Beth El.

In the area where I lived and in the schools I went to there were a lot of different ethnic backgrounds. It was a very mixed area. And to some extent people I think — other kids, teachers — sort of thought it was if you will an unusual distinction that there was this Jewish kid in those classes because there weren’t a lot of Jews in the schools I went to.

It was a very unusual place for a Jewish kid to grow up in those days. There had been a fairly sizable Jewish community at one time around Willard Avenue but that was mostly gone. There were very, very few Jews in what was called the Washington Park area. To some extent I grew up with the sense that people just accepted that you were different and that was OK.

It was a very small neighborhood. I grew up in that area just after World War II. It was a time when the suburbs really hadn’t been much populated.

At this point it’s sort of lost all connections, emotional connections that it had for me. It’s just not a living thing anymore. It’s sort of something that you read about. I was there, and when I was there it was a place that has very warm memories. But it hasn’t been that for a long, long time now.

For me, it’s not Beth El anymore. It’s a very different type of Judaism than is at Beth El now or anywhere else that I’m aware of. It was a much more arm’s length Judaism. When I was growing up Judaism was sort of a world apart from the rest of Rhode Island.

I do have very warm feelings about Beth El. It was and is an important part of our lives, my life. But you know, it’s not the building, it’s all that went with it. It was a very, very interesting, exciting, welcoming, warm place for a young Jewish boy.


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