Rhode Island’s first Reform synagogue and the Masonic fraternity

Jewish Masons conform to non-Jewish symbols
Jewish Masons conform to non-Jewish symbols

Abraham RedwoodIn 1877, a number of Jewish Freemasons living in Providence decided to join together to form a new Masonic lodge, Redwood Lodge Number 35.  According to Redwood Lodge’s tradition, the group’s leader, Myer Noot, envisioned a lodge that would be open to all men, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

In addition to founding Redwood Lodge that year, Myer Noot also led the 1877 restructuring of the then-Orthodox Congregation of the Sons of Israel and David into Rhode Island’s first Moderate Reform synagogue, which is better known today as Providence’s Temple Beth-El.  He subsequently served the congregation as secretary, vice-president, teacher, dues collector, cantor and rabbi.

Nine of the other men whose names appear on Redwood’s petition for a charter from the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island were members of the Sons of Israel and David as well, and most of them were at the forefront of the congregation’s Moderate Reform restructuring.   Adherents of nineteenth-century Reform Judaism were particularly preoccupied with integrating themselves into the Christian social fabric of Europe and America, and the formation of Redwood Lodge, in addition to helping unite the Jewish Freemasons of Providence, served an integrationist function, linking the Sons of Israel and David with an established, respected, and largely Protestant fraternity.

The degree to which Redwood’s founders succeeded in this social integration effort was fully evident when the Sons of Israel and David purchased land and moved forward with its plans to construct Providence’s first synagogue building.  Many of Rhode Island’s Christian residents supported the endeavor, even donating money to help the small Jewish community with construction costs.

After much exertion, sufficient funds were raised, and on September 23, 1889, the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island conducted an elaborate cornerstone ceremony for the congregation.  A Masonic procession set out from Freemasons Hall, the Grand Lodge building, and made its way towards the congregation’s recently purchased land.  Redwood Lodge acted as an escort to the Grand Lodge, and its by-laws were among the Masonic documents placed in a box beneath the synagogue’s cornerstone.

Louis Baruch Rubinstein’s Centennial History of Redwood Lodge (1982) records that the “relationship between the Congregation Sons of Israel and David and Redwood Lodge continued [after the cornerstone ceremony] and persists to the present, with many of Redwood’s membership also active in that congregation.”

Today, Jews from Temple Beth El and other Rhode Island synagogues remain active in the lodge.  However, this Jewish integration into a distinctly non-Jewish branch of the Masonic fraternity has resulted in a number of unusual circumstances.  One of these peculiarities is the lodge’s coat of arms, which was adopted by Redwood’s founders in 1878 and contains Redwood’s Latin motto, “Leo de Judah est Robur Nostrum,” or “the Lion of Judah is our Strength.”  In Freemasonry, the use of this motto is messianic and signifies that “Jesus Christ is our Strength.”

Similarly, a reference to Jesus, under the name of “the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” is found in one of the concluding lectures of Rhode Island’s Master Mason Degree, where it is stated that a Christian’s “Faith in the merits of the Lion of the tribe of Judah” assures him of his own future resurrection from the grave.

Other statements having to do with resurrection in Rhode Island’s Master Mason Degree speak of the superiority of “the Christian dispensation” (Christianity) over “the Jewish hierarchy” (Judaism), and describe Christianity as the most complete religious stage humanity has passed through.  Christianity is said to be superior to Judaism because the former purportedly proves the doctrine of future bodily resurrection from the grave, whereas the Hebrew Bible does not.  In this manner Rhode Island Freemasonry reiterates supercessionist/replacement theology, the notion that Christianity has superseded and replaced Judaism.

According to The Providence Journal’s report of the events, the 1889 Masonic cornerstone ceremony for the Sons of Israel and David’s synagogue included the Lord’s Prayer and invoked the patronage of Christian saints.  Prior to consecrating the synagogue’s cornerstone, the Journal reported, “Grand Master [George H. Kenyon] approached the stone, and, striking it three times with his gavel, said:  ‘To the glory of God, under the patronage of the Holy Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist, I declare this stone to be well formed, true and trusty, and laid by us in ample form.’”

Portions of that account were later contested by Grand Master Kenyon.  At the 100th annual communication of the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island, in May 1890, he asserted that “on the day mentioned the corner stone was laid in ample form according to the ritual adopted by Grand Lodge, with only such slight modification as would make it conform to the Jewish faith.”

Whether or not the Grand Lodge slightly modified its cornerstone ceremony, the aspiration of the Jews of Redwood and the members of Providence’s Moderate Reform congregation to more fully integrate into the surrounding Christian society, and to affiliate with an established and respected non-Jewish fraternity, had been publicly fulfilled that September day.  Masonic involvement came at a price, however.  Over a century later, Jewish members continue to accommodate themselves to Rhode Island Freemasonry’s Christian ritual, lectures, and symbolism.

Shai Afsai (ggbi@juno.com) lives in Providence.

Editor’s note: The above is excerpted from Shai Afsai’s article “Jews and Freemasons in Providence: Tem-ple Beth-El and Redwood Lodge,” winner of the 2013 Eleanor Horvitz Award of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association, which memorializes the RIJHA’s longtime librarian and archivist, and will be pub-lished in the upcoming issue of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes. The award presentation took place on Sept. 22.