|A glimpse inside the Broad Street synagogue|
|By Philip Eil|
|Friday, 02 March 2012 15:19|
| Fighting to preserve (and re-imagine) a piece of local Jewish history |
PROVIDENCE – The iron gates are secured with padlocks. Food wrappers, empty bottles and a rubber tire litter the front yard. Some of the windows are broken, while others are boarded up with plywood. Inside the building, the floorboards have swelled and rippled like waves, with nails protruding at odd angles. Graffiti covers many of the walls and mold swirls in psychedelic patterns on the ceilings. The air is cold and musty.
I am describing Congregation Shaare Zedek, the abandoned synagogue on Broad Street. And, ragged as it may sound, it’s the most exciting building in Providence that I’ve seen in a while.
You might be familiar with Shaare Zedek if you read the Providence Preservation Society’s “Ten Most Endangered Properties” 2010 report. In the early 20th century, the report explains, the Reform congregation Sons of Israel and David moved to the proud neo-Classical building from a rented space downtown. By mid-century, the congregation moved again when it commissioned a sleek, modern edifice on Orchard Avenue – the Temple Beth-El where I attended b’nai mitzvah ceremonies as a young teen in Providence. The synagogue’s former building didn’t go empty though; a group of Orthodox congregations banded together, bought the building and renamed it “Shaare Zedek,” meaning “gates of righteousness.”
Shaare Zedek was a fully function shul for the next 50 years until the mid-2000s, when, with membership rolls dwindling and congregants growing old, the synagogue joined Congregation Beth Sholom. Beth Sholom took ownership of the building as part of the merger and, by the time Adam Bush and Sam Seidel drove by the building in early 2011, there was a “For Sale” sign posted out front.
Bush and Seidel have a knack for seeing things from a different perspective. Bush is the director of curriculum for Roger Williams University’s alternative higher education program, College Unbound. Seidel, a 2002 Brown graduate and current board member of AS220, has been touring to promote his book, “Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education.” In Shaare Zedek – a building that fascinated them long before it went on the market – they saw possibilities for a venue that most people in Providence, Jewish or not, had left for dead. Moving quickly, they contacted the owners and helped them get a loan from the Providence Revolving Fund to secure the building’s roof before winter weather arrived. (Copper panels had been stolen and water had seeped into the building.) To raise awareness, they started reaching out to local organizations and institutions, including RISD, where Danielle Herzenberg, a graduate student in interior architecture, chose the synagogue as the subject of her thesis.
“It’s just eerie,” Herzenberg said. “You walk into the space and you can almost hear the echoes of past generations.”
Bush and Seidel also began to give tours to people like me who were curious about Shaare Zedek. Though they envision the building as some kind of mixed-use community center, the next chapter of the Shaare Zedek won’t be written without the help of local citizens and organizations. As Seidel told me, they are eager to invite locals to get involved in the process. Community members can get involved with their minds and mouths, by attending a meeting about how the space should best be used. Will the old sanctuary become a performance space? What will become of the mikveh in the basement? They can get involved with their hands by helping archive and document ephemera left behind by past congregations. And, of course, they can get involved with their wallets and checkbooks, with tax-deductible donations to preserve a building that once teetered on the brink of demolition.
Before you do anything, though, I recommend doing what I did: Take a tour like the one Bush conducted for a group of Brown students and me on a recent afternoon. “It’s beautiful,” he assured me before we went inside. “When you’re in there, it feels very special, as a sacred history, but also a sacred present – what it can be.”
With dust and glass crackling under my feet and a camera in my hand, I soon forgot about first impressions. The stained glass windows, the soaring organ pipes, the metal memorial plaques on the walls, the wooden pews, the graffiti-stained bimah – there was a grandeur that far exceeded a broken window or a few gum wrappers.
“I think almost anyone will fall for this building when they see the inside,” Bush had said.
In my case, at least, he was right.