We often think that, except for Newport, all the early Jewish settlements were in Providence. This not true. Bristol has a history that is almost as old as Providence, and its synagogue has an interesting story.
The story begins in the late 1800s, when there were a few Jewish families from Eastern Europe living in Bristol; they were almost all small business owners. Because they were cut off from the major Jewish center of the time – Providence – they decided to form an organization. In 1896 they founded the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. Four years later, they needed a place to worship, and, in 1900, they chartered the United Brothers Synagogue, Chevra Agudas Achim.
Around this time the National India Rubber Company, through various changes of management, moved to Bristol from New York, and brought with it many Jewish workers.
While they started out as workers in the plant, they quickly moved up to the office and then they became businessmen.
Coming from a metropolitan area, they were open to different forms of Judaism. When these groups joined together, they began meeting at people’s homes. Later, they moved to two other buildings in Bristol before building the synagogue on High Street in 1916, where it stands today. At first the women sat upstairs at the Orthodox synagogue. But, very soon the women moved downstairs. There was no rabbi in charge; instead a gabbai or lay leaders ran the services.
Relations with the local community were very good, and the new building received help from both Protestant and Catholic churches. In the early 1930s, Young Judea, a Sunday School, was founded by these second- and third-generation Jews; its motto was “American Jew.” Later this was called the Bristol Jewish Community Center.
After World War II, there was an emigration of Jews to the Providence area and an immigration of Jews from Providence to the “suburb” of Bristol. New families brought new ideas, and as the Community Center grew, the synagogue became a religious institution only. During the 1950s, a not-uncommon change occurred, and the synagogue became Conservative.
The mid-1960s were not a good time for United Brothers, and the synagogue closed for about 10 years, until the mid-1970s. Most of the impetus for reopening came from new families who had moved to Bristol in the 1970s. In 1975 the synagogue reopened without a rabbi and with one service per month.
Today the synagogue is thriving. The old building has been refurbished, with work on the roof, electrical service and a renovated HVAC system. While doing this, the members discovered that there was a tin ceiling panel, a plaque honoring the WWII veterans and even a notebook indicating that the dues at the beginning were 10 cents per week. Their interfaith association continues, too, with joint services. Daniel Kertzner is the religious leader – again, not a rabbi (there was a rabbi in 2015) – the synagogue has High Holy Day services and continues to worship monthly. Thus we see how a building and a group can be born and reborn.
RUTH BREINDEL is the president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association. Her information comes from its archives. The archives are open to the public Monday through Friday. For more information, contact RIJHA via firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-331-1360.