BRISTOL – The sanctuary at the United Brothers Synagogue was full on Aug. 27, both with congregation members and others who turned out to support the temple’s centennial celebration.
Former U.S. Rep. David Cicilline presented the congregation with a “congressional certificate … as an affirmation that we [R.I.] can continue to be a place where not only Jews, but people of all faiths can exercise their religious traditions.”
R.I. Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos was also on hand to congratulate the congregation.
“Every time I come to any of the Jewish services … it is striking to notice that most of the time, you need to have safety [police] outside,” she said. “And that’s why I think it’s even more important for us to show up, to show our support.”
United Brothers’ Cantor Dr. Joel Gluck said the celebration “will go down in history because not only is it celebrating a wonderful building, but it’s celebrating this building’s place in a larger community.”
“And it’s great to be with not only our own congregation, but with congregants from all the different religions,” he added.
The congregation was formed 120 years ago, and the synagogue was built in 1923, creating a welcoming home for Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution and poverty in Europe.
It is the second-oldest synagogue in Rhode Island; Touro Synagogue, in Newport, is the state’s, as well as the nation’s, oldest synagogue.
Michael Feldman, the historian for United Brothers, said the sanctuary has not changed much since the synagogue was first built, apart from the stained-glass windows behind the ark, which were added later to depict stories from the Bible.
There is a mystery concerning the stork-like birds on the bimah – Feldman said research has yet to yield a clue.
The synagogue is dedicated to the memory of those who died serving in World War II, with a gold star in the staircase for each one.
The congregation has evolved over time, abandoning its Orthodox tradition in the 1950s for a more conservative form of Judaism. However, by the 1960s, membership had declined and services ceased. This led to a concerted – and successful – effort to revive the congregation in the ’70s.
Now, the congregation meets the first Friday of every month for services and holds events and activities throughout the year.
“We are all happy to be here to commemorate the past 100 years of the congregation in the past 100 years of this building,” Feldman said.
R.I. Rep. Susan R. Donovan, who represents Bristol, said she grew up only a street away from the temple, and she was sad to admit that the 100th-anniversary celebration marked her first time in the sanctuary.
“Thank you for inviting me,” she said, adding that she now hopes to return.
Julie Weinberg, who chaired United Brothers’ centennial celebration committee, said she was delighted by the “really great turnout” of 125 people.
Cantor Gluck added, “100 years seems like a long time. But then, you know, 200 years from now, someone else will be looking back and saying, when they were 100 years old, this is what they did. And now we’re doing this.
“And hopefully this community will grow larger and larger.”
SETH CHITWOOD (www.sethchitwood.com), of Barrington, is a features reporter for The Standard-Times, in New Bedford. He is also the creative director of the award-winning Angelwood Pictures production company.