History

 

The Sons of Jacob Synagogue was certified by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. The following text is from the United States Department of Interior National Park Service records.

 

Period of Significance: 1906-1939

Significant Dates: 1906, 1922

Architect: Harry Marshak

 

As the only synagogue still in use in the Smith Hill area, Sons of Jacob Synagogue is the last remaining symbol of the once-thriving Jewish community in this neighborhood. Thus, it is historically significant as a manifestation of the establishment, growth, and evolution of the Jewish community of the Randall Square-Smith Hill area. The history of the congregation for which it was built offers insight into the social, economic, and geographic mobility of successive generations of local Jewish families and into the history of Orthodox Judaism in Rhode Island. The Sons of Jacob Synagogue is also architecturally significant as an example of early twentieth-century synagogue architecture in Rhode Island, especially insofar as it reflects the requirements of Orthodox tradition. Few synagogues were built in Providence in the early twentieth century and few of these have escaped demolition or extensive remodeling. Thus, Sons of Jacob Synagogue, still standing and largely unaltered, is an important cultural resource. Though religious buildings are normally not eligible for nomination to the National Register, Sons of Jacob Synagogue derives its significance from its historical importance and architectural distinction, and is eligible for nomination under National Register Criteria A and C.

 

Unlike Newport, which had a substantial community of Jews in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Providence did not have a significant number of Jewish inhabitants until the middle of the nineteenth century. Though documentation is sparse, it appears that the first Jewish families arrived in Providence in the 1820s or 1830s. The first wave of immigrants came from Germany, Holland, Hungary, and Poland. Many settled in the downtown and became proprietors of small shops.

 

Near the end of the century, a new wave of Jewish immigrant began to arrive in the Providence area from Austria, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and Russia. Their number increased dramatically with the advent of the Russian pogroms in 1881-2, and by the early 1900s the great majority of Providence Jews were of Russian background. The newcomers settled around Randall Square, in the adjoining Constitution Hill and Smith Hill areas, and in the Willard Avenue-Prairie Avenue section of South Providence. They were generally poorer than the earlier immigrants, and more strongly dedicated to Orthodox religious practices.

 

In the years after 1970, as the Jewish population expanded, a growing number of congregations came to be organized along particular ritualistic, national, and/or neighborhood lines. (For example, Congregation Sons of Israel, known after 1874 as Congregations Sons of Israel and David, became increasingly identified as the congregation for Reform Jews of German background.) Over the next half-century, nearly two dozen more synagogues were chartered in the city (Kempner, 11). Most of the congregations being formed at this time were too poor to buy or build their own houses of worship; therefore, members worshipped in whatever spaces were available to them, such as rooms in each others' homes or rented meeting halls (Smith, 136). In South Providence, six congregations of Russian and Eastern European Orthodox Jews succeeded in buying or constructing synagogue buildings between approximately 1898 and 1921. In the Randall Square-Smith Hill area, Eastern European Orthodox Jews built at least four other synagogues in addition to Congregation Sons of Jacob (Smith, 139-39; Horvitz, 30-34). 

 

Congregation Sons of Jacob was founded in 1896 by a small group of Russian Orthodox Jews. For its first ten years, the congregation held services in a small room on the upper floor of a shop at the corner of Shawmut Street and Chalkstone Avenue, an area of particularly dense Jewish concentration. Soon after the turn of the century, the congregation bought land on Douglas Avenue. Still too poor to build a complete synagogue structure the Congregation made plans, first, to build the lower floor of a synagogue and later, to complete the upper floor. In 1906, the basement of the new building was constructed and on Sunday, September 16, the congregation took possession of their new home. For a small congregation at that time to have completed even a partial building was a significant accomplishment, and the neighborhood turned out to celebrate. Thousands of people lined the streets to watch and cheer the procession, led by a marching band and nearly three hundred Hebrew school children, which transferred the Scrolls from the old synagogue on Chalkstone Avenue to the new one on Douglas Avenue (Providence Journal, September 17, 1906, 3).

 

Over the next sixteen years, the congregation worked hard to accumulate the funds to erect the upper floor of the building, which was to be the main synagogue. Finally, in 1922, the main synagogue (sanctuary) was built, at a cost of nearly $50,000. Dedication ceremonies were held on Sunday, August 27, of that year (Providence Evening Bulletin, August 30, 1922, p. 7).

 

The architect for the upper portion of the building was Harry Harshak, probably the first Jewish architect active in the Providence area. Born in the mid-1890s in Central Falls to Jacob and Minnie (Ficofsky) Marshak, Russian immigrants, he lived in Providence for most of his life. Marshak had no professional training as an architect. He worked for other builders for a time and then opened his own firm in 1923, Nationwide House Plan Service, of which he was president for forty-five years until his retirement in 1968. During his career, Marshak built a number of homes on the East Side for prominent Jewish families, such as the Silvermans, the Leaches, the Feins, and the Gladstones. He also designed Temple Beth Israel (1921, altered 1960s), 155 Niagra Street, as well as the 1958 addition for Congregation Shaare Zedek at 688 Broad Street. Late in his career, Marshak virtually stopped building houses and concentrated his efforts on preparing house plan books to be sold in loan companies and lumberyards. Harry Marshak died in 1973, at the age of seventy-nine (interview with Mrs. Harry Marshak: Rhode Island Herald, May 4, 1973).

 

While architectural historians have examined in some detail the larger synagogues being erected in American cities at this time by prestigious congregations, scholars have taken less notice of the many smaller structures built by less affluent congregations. As the synagogue commissioned by Congregation Sons of Jacob is one of the last remaining examples of such smaller buildings in the Providence area, it is difficult to determine whether or not it reflects local stylistic trends for small synagogues. Nevertheless, by comparing the building with photographs of other early synagogues in Providence, it is possible to make some generalizations regarding exterior similarities among the group as a whole. 

 

These smaller synagogues tend not to resemble Christian churches; instead, they suggest a variety of other building types. Congregation Linnath Hazedeck, at 142 Willard Avenue, a one-story, flat-roofed brick structure, resembled a small store. Nachzekas Hadas Congregation, once on Willard Avenue and Caswell Court; the South Providence Hebrew Congregation, once located at 201 Willard Avenue; and Congregation Sons of Jacob could be mistaken for fraternal halls. Congregation Sons of Zion's twin towers gave the building something of the character of a church; yet, the proportions of the building and Queen Anne styling of the towers impart a residential flavor to the structure. 

 

These synagogues tended to be small and relatively free of outside ornamentation. As much as anything else, this may be due to the fact that these congregations could not afford larger and more imposing structures. Most of them do not appear to have been modeled upon other synagogues. Only Congregation Sons of Jacob seems to have been inspired by a European example. It may well have been based upon an engraving of a synagogue erected in 1836-39 in Kassel, now in West Germany (Krinsky, p. 315, fig 164). The Kassel synagogue, like Sons of Jacob, is a rectangular block set on a high basement. Like Sons of Jacob, the synagogue in Kassel has a broad entrance pavilion on the front which contains the vestibule and stairways. Both Synagogues have similar window treatments on the sides of the buildings, and both have what appear to be adaptations of classical pilasters on their facades. Both facades have gabled central sections, broken, on the Providence synagogue, by the Tablets of the Decalogue. Both synagogues also have small decorative elements rising above the roof line to either side of the gabled central part of their facades and at the front and back corners of their pavilions. 

 

At the east end of the first floor is the vestibule, which leads into the sanctuary beyond and also provides access to the ground floor and gallery via staircases at either side of the room. Three sets of marble tablets line the walls of the vestibule to either side of and between the two sets of doors into the sanctuary. Among those listed on these tablets are the members of the building committee of 1922, the year that the upper level of the synagogue was completed.

 

The sanctuary occupies the two-story space behind the vestibule. Five ranks of plain wooden benches fill most of the room. Near the west end of the room is the bimah, a raised platform containing a desk where the Scrolls are read. The pulpit, a second, larger platform, abuts the west wall. A curtained central pavilion at the back of the platform houses the ark. This arrangement of the sanctuary, with the pulpit and ark located on the westerly wall, does not conform to the standard Jewish practice of placing the pulpit and ark on the east, so that the synagogue is oriented toward Jerusalem (Krinsky, 35). This departure is probably due to the restrictions imposed by the site. To either side of the ark are marble memorial tablets. At the rear and sides of the sanctuary is a gallery, with a stepped floor and balustrade. Above the sanctuary is a shallow vaulted ceiling. 

 

The sanctuary is lit by five sets of windows, arranged in two ranks or rows. Arched upper windows light the gallery, while the rectangular lower windows light the main floor. The windows have clear-glass panes, framed with narrow panels of stained glass. An electric crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling above the bimah, while two smaller, star-shaped lights hang above the gallery to either side of the ark. The ark itself, as well as the memorial tablets flanking it, and the arch above it, are outlined with rows of small white light bulbs. An electronic menorah stands on the pupit platform in front of the ark. Large illuminated globes rest upon turned wooden posts at the corners of the two platforms. A number of additional light fixtures, apparently installed when the sanctuary was first constructed, are located on the sides of the gallery and in the ceiling. 

 

The most striking feature of the sanctuary is its many murals. Above the ark is a mural depicting two lions supporting a tablet bearing the Commandments. This mural is framed by a wooden arch painted to look like marble. Beyond the arch surmounting the ark, the wall is painted to resemble blue sky framed by red curtains tied with gold cord to columns at the sides. A painting of an animal appears above each of the four windows at the west end of the auditorium. The animals depicted are the deer, the lion, the eagle, and the tiger. Along the painted border of the central section of the ceiling are twelve images representing the months of the year, or possibly the signs of the zodiac. Within the border, the ceiling is covered with painted clouds. Several examples of trompe-l'oeil painting are evident in the room. The area from which the chandelier hangs is painted to approximate an elaborate medallion. The fronts of the gallery are painted to suggest inlaid marble panels, while the posts supporting the gallery are painted to resemble marble columns. Sam Shore, congregation president from 1923 to 1936, who was "artistically inclined" supervised the painting of the sanctuary and himself painted the pictures symbolizing the twelve Jewish months (Klein). No one now remembers who painted the rest of the murals.

 

The ground floor is reached from the main floor by stairs at either end of the vestibule. At the front, under the vestibule, is a second vestibule providing access to men's and women's rooms, to the kitchen, and to the lower shul, or sanctuary. The lower shul, rectangular in plan, occupies approximately two-thirds of the ground floor space. It is located on the south side of the building and extends from the vestibule at the east end to the westerly wall. The kitchen is located at the northeast corner of the basement, just behind the vestibule. It is L-shaped in plan, with the furnace located in a recess within the inside angle. A dining room, rectangular in plan, is located at the northwest corner of the basement and is entered through the lower shul. 

 

At the west end of the lower shul is a raised platform serving as the pupit. Affixed to the wall at the rear of the platform is the ark. The appliqued velvet curtain behind which the Scrolls are kept is flanked by pilasters and surmounted by a pediment within which two lions hold tablets on which are written in Hebrew key words of the Ten Commandments. A larger red curtain hangs from the ceiling and frames the ark itself. Two narrow panels to either side of the curtain are painted with landscape scenes. The panel to the left depicts a walled city, perhaps Jerusalem. The panel to the right shows a river running through a fertile valley in the foreground with mountains in the background; the scene may represent Babylon. (Note: Krinsky notes that murals depicting scenes of the Holy Land were not uncommon in eastern European synagogues from the late seventeenth through the mid nineteenth centuries (57-58, 76). This panel is signed with the name Dr. Shadvac in the lower right corner.

 

While very few alterations have been made to the upper portion of the building -- beyond paneling applied to the walls of the vestibule and stairways in the late 1940s or early 1950s -- the lower portion has been extensively remodeled. All of the walls of the lower level were paneled at the same time as the vestibule and stairways. Additional rooms have been created at the east end of the lower shul by installing plywood partitioning. One of these rooms is used as an office; the other serves as a cloak room. The floor of the lower shul is now carpeted, while the floor of the dining room is now covered with linoleum. Modern fluorescent light fixtures hang from the original pressed-metal ceiling. 

 

 

The main sanctuary in Synagogue Sons of Jacob is used now, as it has always been, primarily for services on High Holidays. As in many other synagogues, daily services and ordinary Sabbath services -- as well as weddings, important functions, and social events -- are held in the lower shul, often called the bes medrash (house of study), in the section of the building that was constructed in 1906 and served as the only place of worship until the upper portion of the building was completed in 1922 (Wolfe, 41).

 

 

Congregation Sons of Jacob's interior plan and furnishings were devised to conform to the congregation's Orthodox ritual practices. In the Orthodox tradition, women do not sit with men during worship, and the services, conducted without music, focus on the reading of the Torah and recitation of prayers. As a consequence, Orthodox synagogues have separate galleries for women's seating, a bimah from which the Holy Scriptures are read, and no organs or choir lofts. The bimah, a raised platform with a large desk for holding the Torah scrolls, is placed in the center of the room, with the desk facing the Ark, which is usually located on or near the east wall. (In Congregation Sons of Jacob, as previously mentioned, the Ark is located on the west wall; the bimah, consequently, is facing west.) Candelabra, or chandeliers, often hang from the ceiling above the bimah, illuminating the reading table. Seats are arranged facing the bimah, with the area between the bimah and the Ark usually left empty. 

 

Traditionally, the bimah and the Ark, by placement, size, and decoration, are given equal importance, reflecting the balance between prayer (directed toward Jerusalem and the ark wall) and reading (at the bimah). "As new elements of mysticism became prominent in Judaism (during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries), synagogue architectural historian Carol Herselle Krinsky observes, "they affected some of the rules and traditional practices in synagogue building" (p. 49). Prayer was given greater emphasis than reading; consequently, the importance of the bimah declined while that of the ark increased. In Congregation Sons of Jacob, the bimah is visually subordinate to the ark. The bimah is positioned toward the front of the sanctuary, near the ark, rather than remaining in its customary place at the center of the room. The space between the bimah and the ark is filled with fixed seating, facing the elaborately decorated and elevated ark. 

 

While it appears that wall paintings like those on the walls and ceiling at Congregation Sons of Jacob were not common in American synagogues, some late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century synagogues in this country and a number of eastern European synagogues from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries were richly painted (Krinsky, 56; Wolfe, 52, 60). Many pictorial motifs found on the walls of Sons of Jacob have European origins -- and have established religious iconography. The two lions above the ark holding the Tablets of the Decalogue refer to the lion ornaments of Solomon's palace (Krinsky, 56). The animals above the westerly windows refer to a passage from the Mishnah: "Be fearless as a leopard, right as the eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your heavenly father" (Krinsky, 56). 

 

At least one other synagogue in the Providence area also had extensive pictorial murals. This was Synagogue Sons of Zion, which stood just down the street from Sons of Jacob at 45 Orms Street until it was demolished about 1970. Murals above the ark in both Providence synagogues show red curtains tied at the sides to columns, a common motif used in eastern European synagogues to display the ark. While the curtains in the mural in Synagogoue Sons of Jacob frame blue sky, the curtains in the mural in synagogue Sons of Zion opened to reveal a landscape scene beyond, probably representing the Holy Land, as paintings of Jerusalem and other views of the Holy Land appeared in a number of eastern European synagogues (Krinsky, 57-58). It is possible that a similar scene lies beneath the marble tablets now placed to either side of the ark in Synagogue Sons of Jacob, had marbleized wooden panels on the sides of the gallery, a decorative element possibly inspired by European examples, as painted imitation marble, brick, and stone had become popular in European synagogues by the mid-nineteenth century (Krinsky, 76). 

 

Even when completed in 1922, Congregation Sons of Jacob was considerably less imposing than Temple Beth El, constructed in the previous decade by the fairly well-to-do members of the Reform Congregation Sons of Israel and David; it was; on the other hand, a much more impressive structure than most of the other small synagogues being erected in Providence at this time by relatively poor Orthodox congregations. Considering that the members of Congregation Sons of Jacob were themselves not prosperous, the fact that they were able to erect such a building is remarkable. At the time that the upper portion of the structure was completed, most members of the congregation were, like the majority of Providence's Jewish population, first- and second-generation eastern European Jews of modest means (Kempner, 11). They earned their livings as peddlers, proprietors  or small neighborhood businesses, butchers, bakers, slaughterhouse workers, clerks, and junk dealers. Few were professionals, such as doctors, teachers, or lawyers. None owned large stores or factories. Most of them lived and worked close to the synagogue, in the Smith Hill-Randall Square area. 

 

Over the next quarter-century, Sons of Jacob grew. Membership increased and, with more membership dues, the congregation was able to offer a greater variety of religious and social services for its members and to take a more active part in city-wide programs sponsored by the Jewish community. Members of the congregation also prospered. My the mid-forties, while some remained peddlers, junk dealers, and small shopkeepers, others had become lawyers, retail store owners, and small manufacturers. While most members of the congregation still lived in the vicinity of the synagogue, many had begun to move out of the three-family houses of the Smith Hill area into the one- and two-family homes in the Elmhurst neighborhood beyond. 

 

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the fortunes of the synagogue and its congregation began to diverge. The children and grandchildren of those who had watched the completion of the synagogue in the 1920s went to college and became successful in business or the professions. They moved to single-family homes on Providence's East Side and in the suburbs of Cranston, Warwick, Lincoln, and elsewhere, and they began to worship in synagogues near their new homes. The Jewish population in the Smith Hill area declined, and Congregation Sons of Jacob's membership fell. 

 

Social and geographic mobility were not the only reasons for Congregations Sons of Jacob's diminishing membership. The neighborhood was being physically destroyed, primarily through the Randall Square urban renewal and the construction of two new limited-access highways: Route 146 in the center of the neighborhood and Route 95 on its Eastern edge. Once located on a busy intersection lined with small shops, the synagogue now faces a turnpike overpass.

 

Congregation Sons of Jacob is the only Orthodox synagogue remaining in the Smith Hill area, and it serves only a remnant of its former membership. While many now living in the suburbs still return for High Holidays -- the only occasions on which the upper sanctuary is used for services, only a dozen families worship in the Synagogue on most Sabbath Days, and the number attending daily morning worship services is even smaller. The synagogue on Douglas Avenue thus reflects national urban trends: It is one of a multitude of neighborhood institutions which supported and sustained immigrants during their difficult early years in America but which have been eventually left behind by their descendants as they have moved to the middle-class suburbs and entered the American mainstream.

 

Period of Significance:

The period of significance is defined as 1906-1939. The period begins in 1906, when construction began on the synagogue building. Since 1906 until the present, Sons of Jacob has had continuing significance as a manifestation of the establishment, growth, and evolution of the Jewish community on Smith Hill. The period of significance, therefore, ends in 1939, following the 50-year rule. [Note that this text and the historic designation was prepared in 1989.]

 

 

CONGREGATION SONS OF JACOB
24 DOUGLAS AVE, PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND 02908

    © 2015 by Congregation Sons of Jacob (Providence, RI)