To the casual observer, the modest cedar-shingled building at 205 High Street gives little indication as to its important role in understanding the history of Jews in Rhode Island.
The Jewish community in Bristol was founded by Eastern European immigrants who were fleeing anti-Semitism in their homelands. Some lived in Bristol as early as the 1890’s and in 1896 several men formed the Young Men’s Hebrew Association for social and benevolent purposes such as the need to bury the Jewish dead in Jewish cemeteries. As the small Jewish community grew, they needed a place of worship. As Orthodox Jews, they could not travel on the Sabbath so they needed a synagogue in walking distance. The two communities of Jews, blue color workers from Long Island who moved to Bristol between 1897 and 1907 to work for National India Rubber Company and members of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, combined to form United Brothers Synagogue or Chevra Agudas Achim on June 11, 1900. The charter signed by the Rhode Island secretary of state is displayed in the sanctuary and lists the following eleven members as founders: Max Baron, Jacob Bassing, Joseph Benjamin, Joseph Feder, Abraham Gerstein, Jacob Goldstein, Max Lewanda, Elis Lisker, Max Makowsky, Wolf Weinstein, and Hyman Yarlasavetsky. Louis Molasky, who became the first president serving over 20 years, was also a founder. The first services were held at the home of Jacob Baron on Catherine Street
The Bristol town directory of 1905 listed 36 Jews. Twelve were merchants, two were laborers and the others shopkeepers and peddlers. Warren’s town register listed three Jewish residents- a doctor, a grocer and a tailor. The Jewish men and women at this time had already become a part of the Bristol economy in sales professions. In 1908, a house on John Street was purchased for services and then they moved to a site on Richmond Street. The present location at 205 High Street was built in 1916. The new synagogue with its stained glass Star of David facing the morning sun was the culmination of a dream for the congregants. Services were led by a Gabbai, as there was never a large enough community to support a rabbi. The synagogue formed both a Brotherhood and Sisterhood. The men officially ran the synagogue and organized the prayers, while the women handled charity and services to the Jewish community.
The Jews of Bristol were treated kindly by the churches in the area. The founders of the synagogue were aided in their search for a building by Dr. George Lyman Locke, rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. Local churches helped out during construction of the synagogue. St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Wood Street and St. Michael’s on Hope Street donated pews. Once the synagogue was completed, Dr. Locke taught Hebrew to the members. Jews lived close to the synagogue on High, John, Wood and Catherine Streets, but they were not congregated all in one place. Only about forty families were members of the synagogue (similar to today), which was too small to form a Jewish community. Religion and national origin formed the focus for the primary social network for the Jews of Bristol, but the larger society of the town formed a strong secondary network.
During the 1930’s the synagogue held regular Sabbath services. In 1934, the Young Judea Sunday School for religious instruction was created. The children of the original founders attended this school and no longer identified themselves as Eastern Europeans but as American Jews. This generation was interested in questions and ideas which many older Jews hesitated to ask or discuss openly. For example, in 1935 the school held a debate on whether Jews should associate with non-Jews. At this time, women sat upstairs in the balcony and men sat downstairs. As time went on, men and women sat together. At the synagogue’s 40th Anniversary, the President of the Sisterhood sat on the bema. This was the first time a woman was allowed to do so.
During the latter part of the 1930’s the synagogue also formed a bowling league, which formally became the Bristol Jewish Community Center in September 1946. Following World War II there was a significant exit of Jews from Bristol in search of greater economic, social and educational opportunities. At the same time, there was a small immigration of Jews to Bristol as part of the suburbanization of the Providence Jewish community. A new community center was formed by three men, Ira Stone, Herbert Eisenstadt and Maynard Suzman, who had returned from war. This marked the transition of leadership in the synagogue to those of the second generation. The center was formed as a parallel organization to the synagogue, as a religious, social, civilian and non-political institution. This was a significant formal change, since prior to the war, Jews in Bristol regarded the synagogue as the focal point of their Jewish lives. According to Maynard, Bristol Jews had become “restless” with the restrictions of Orthodoxy. Jewish war veterans stressed the moral, rather than the ritual dimension of Judaism. The center took on the functions of the Sisterhood, the Sunshine Committee, the Sunday School, fund raising and moral education that were all handled by the previous generation. Building improvements were undertaken by the center rather than by the synagogue.
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, Judaism became less of a lifestyle difference and more of a different system of cultural and social symbols within an American lifestyle. It was no longer identification with Chevra Agudas Achim which defined the community, but identification with a sense of Jewish community institutionalized in the community center. The lack of second and third generation families in the center is telling of the previously mentioned out-migration from Bristol. The G.I. Bill in particular caused many young families to leave town, as they could not climb any higher in the economic structure of Bristol. Marriage to Jews from outside the town and intermarriage with non-Jews also contributed to this flight.
During the 1950’s the synagogue abandoned its Orthodox rituals in favor of Conservative ones, which paralleled a national pattern as well as that of various Providence synagogues. Women acquired leadership positions in the center and the use of English/Hebrew prayer books for the High Holidays marked the movement toward Conservative Judaism. Even with these changes, the center and the synagogue could not compete with the Barrington Jewish Center and other larger Conservative synagogues in the new suburbs of Providence. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to attract new members during this decade. The 1960’s featured a period of strong growth of the Jewish community around Providence which became a major competitive disadvantage for United Brothers Synagogue. In 1966 due to low membership, the United Brothers Synagogue was forced to close. The building was never sold and the Leviten family took care of the building. Some day-care services were provided in the building, but no Jewish services were held until 1975.
Efforts to rebuild a congregation started in the early 1970’s, but did not come to fruition until Nancy Hillman, along with Al and Gloria Brody, combined forces with a youth group from the Barrington Jewish Center and a local Girl Scout troop. St. Michael’s Episcopal Church and St. Mary’s Catholic Church assisted in the restoration process. An organ, paneling and light fixtures were donated anonymously. After six months of hard work during which time the Torahs were checked, new coverings were donated and the original religious ornaments were tracked down, the synagogue finally opened its doors for services again. Descendants of early members came from all over the United States to attend the re-opening on April 4, 1975.
Over the next 25 years one of the key supporters of the synagogue was William Crausman. Although he was not an ordained rabbi, the congregation referred to him as their Cantor. One of his major strengths as a lay leader was his singing voice. During the late 1970’s he was accompanied on the organ by Bill Gallagher for the Sabbath services and a choir for the High Holidays.
The synagogue’s membership varied between 30 and 45 families during this period. A key year was 1979, when 14 families joined, thereby increasing membership to 35 families. In June 1979 a special ceremony was held to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the synagogue. The descendants of all but two of the charter members were represented.
A recurring theme in the synagogue’s history was its close relationship with other houses of worship. In May, 1983 the Interfaith Choir led by Joan Roth joined the synagogue’s choir, directed by Bill Gallagher, in a special service at UBS. Cantor Crausman often represented the synagogue in the Bristol Interfaith service held before the July 4th festivities.
Hattie Brown was an active member of the Bristol community outside the synagogue, as evidenced by an annual award named after her that remains to this day. When Hattie’s mother passed away in 1983, over 100 citizens who were not members of UBS contributed money to the temple in her memory. 1983 also marked the beginning of Elaine and Bob Kaufman’s almost 20 years as editors of the newsletter. Considering the geographic distance separating members of the congregation and the lack of a weekly service, the newsletter served as a unifying force.
At the annual meeting in May, 1984 the congregation unanimously voted to amend the by-laws: Article XIV: “From this time forth women shall be called upon to actively participate in the religious ceremonies, during the Sabbath and High Holiday Services, as well as other traditional activities.” According to the May newsletter women will be granted aliyot and ark openings, will be included in minyans and shall read from the Torah.
In the 1980s, organist Bill Gallagher departed to join the priesthood, having served the synagogue since it reopened. At that time we welcomed the new organist and choir director Raymond Buttero, who also performed at Temple Beth El in Providence and at St.Matthews Episcopal Church in Jamestown.
1988 marked the first of two major building crises when water pipes froze and burst, filling the kitchen, vestry and cellar with water. President Jim Williams spearheaded the drive to replace the kitchen. In the summer of 1990, newly installed President Moe Lipson faced a crisis when one of the workmen installing the new kitchen fell through the rotted floor. The contractor then discovered that nearly three quarters of the floor joists and beams long were rotted not only in the kitchen but in the vestry. An exterminator was called in, who determined that powder post beetles had caused the damage. Despite an insurance policy, a five year loan from Citzens Bank needed to be arranged to finance the repairs, which took over a year to complete.
On a more positive note, a new tradition began on the Sunday following services. An adult study group was founded by Dr. Michael Sheff, who led the sessions for many years. They covered many topics and provided a social network as well as education.
The November 8, 1990 issue of the Jewish Herald included an article and photograph of the ceremony recognizing our new stain glass windows. The Cantor explained that the synagogue chose Ruth and Naomi because the “characters are symbols of friendship, devotion, and interfaith relations.” The other window with Moses holding the Ten Commandments was selected for its “traditional significance”. Marvin and Joan Glickman donated the windows, created by Paul Bernier of Classical Glass in Wakefield in memory of their parents.
In 1991 the temple began a fundraising goal of $35,000, in order to retire the mortgage loan and to establish a permanent building fund for future needs. A “Tree of Life” ceramic sculpture with 150 brass leaves was donated by Gloria and Al Brody to serve as a means to raise funds. All who wish to commemorate a special event can purchase a leaf and have it personally inscribed. The Tree of Life is located in the vestry and records many special occasions.
In 1997, Patrick Aiken took over as Music Director and organist. Later, United Brothers formed an agreement with Rabbi Marc Jacolinzer of Temple Shalom in Middletown so that children of members of United Brothers Synagogue could attend Hebrew School at Temple Shalom. In September 2002, Scott Tepper became the religious leader at United Brothers Synagogue and he served the congregation until 2015. Our current leader, Rabbi Carolan Glatstein, joined us in 2015. She is the first permanent rabbi in our 116 year history.
In the spring of 2015 we celebrated a double anniversary: The 40th anniversary of our reopening and our 115th year of existence. In the fall of 2016, we will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of our current building with a re-dedication ceremony.
After over a century of service to the Jewish Community of Bristol, we are still going strong.