Remember the past

Temporary and permanent shelters

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One of the biggest themes of Sukkot is shelters, or dwellings. On Sukkot, Jews traditionally build a temporary dwelling, or booth, called a sukkah. Even the holiday is named after this important mitzvah, since sukkot is just the Hebrew plural for sukkah. We eat, pray, and sometimes even sleep in a sukkah, which is required to be a temporary dwelling.

(Some of us, such as I, have fond memories of family sukkot that were a bit too temporary – my father never did find a way to build a sukkah on our backyard deck that did not fall down in less than three days.)

There are varying traditions regarding the walls of a sukkah, but the roof is always made of organic materials and open to the elements. The Torah states that this is to remind us of the protection that God provided to the Israelites in the Sinai desert through the Clouds of Glory (I’ll leave it to rabbis to explain what the Clouds of Glory might have meant). Next to God and God’s protection, all attempts at permanence in both dwellings and life seem temporary and ramshackle.

As I go about my work at the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association, I am often reminded about this lesson of the sukkah. Many families upended their lives to immigrate to the United States, only to move again and again once they arrived. First, an immigrant family moves into a shabby apartment. Once the family gains a little bit of savings, they move into a better apartment. Then, perhaps even before they have a chance to settle in, they’re designing and building a house.

This pattern can be seen time and again in our archives’ many donations of family papers, as well as in the city directories and phone books in our library. It also seemed to be one of the themes for the featured speaker at our Spring Annual Meeting, who focused on the early 20th-century East Side of Providence, and our recent Fall Meeting, who spoke about Colonial Newport.

What is often true for individual families is certainly true for our communities as well. The wonderful Gerry Foster, a former president of the RIJHA, wrote last January about one of the most beautiful and valuable pieces of Judaica folk art in our collection, sometimes called the Beth David Pinkus. It is a record book for a local synagogue study group in the early 20th century in the North End; this group continued to meet despite multiple synagogue mergers and community shifts. It lists the Kesher Israel synagogue, the Russian Congregation, Ahavath Achim, and Congregation Beth David. The pinkus was donated in the earliest days of the RIJHA by Temple Beth David, just before the congregation moved from Chalkstone Avenue in Providence to a new building on Oakland Avenue.

In 1980, Temple Beth David merged with Temple Beth Am in Warwick to become Temple Am David. Recently, we received a large and generous donation of historical papers, objects, and photographs, due to the efforts of Temple Am David president, receiver, and auctioneers. Most notable were two of the three cornerstones from the winding history of dwellings for Temple Am David – the 1899 cornerstone of the Russian Congregation of Agudas Hakolel of Providence and the 1914 cornerstone of Congregation Beth David of Providence. These are the synagogues found in the pinkus. The 1959 cornerstone of Temple Beth Am is now owned by the new Congregation Or Chadash of Warwick.

The history of the RIJHA itself involves many moves before it arrived in its current location, at the Dwares Jewish Community Center, in Providence.  

One of the earlier Jewish communal buildings in Providence was the Hebrew Jewish Institute at 65-67 Benefit St. At the time, people were incredulous about the location – with the two hearts of the Jewish community on the North End and in South Providence, why build a community building so far away? At the time, Benefit Street was considered the very edge of the North End Jewish community.

The Hebrew Jewish Institute became known as the Jewish Community Center of Rhode Island, and eventually moved – along with the Jewish community – farther into the East Side, into an old police station on Sessions Street (currently an empty field next to the Sessions Street playground).

Eventually, through a land swap with the city of Providence, the JCC built a new building on empty land a short distance away, on Elmgrove Avenue.

The Jewish Federation of Rhode Island grew out of the General Jewish Committee of Providence, and for the first few years of its existence resided downcity. But the federation succumbed to the demands of its volunteer leadership and also moved to the East Side.

The new federation building was built in 1970 next door to the still-new JCC building on the corner of Elmgrove and Sessions Street. That very year, the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association moved into the federation building, right next to the new offices for the Bureau of Jewish Education.

If you’d like to visit our library and archives before the end of construction on the JCC, we’re located where the BJE library used to be. If you don’t know where that is, just ask any native Rhode Islander. As the old saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Only God knows the future. Chag Sameach.

JOSHUA JASPER is the librarian/archivist of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association. The library and archives are open to the public Monday through Friday.