United Brothers Synagogue will be celebrating their 100th year on High Street in Bristol this Sunday, Aug. 27 with a rededication of the sanctuary from 2 to 4 p.m.
United Brothers Synagogue will be celebrating their 100th year on High Street in Bristol this Sunday, Aug. 27 with a rededication of the sanctuary from 2 to 4 p.m. Though the temple itself was built earlier, they did not complete the chapel until 1923.
The synagogue – Chevra Agudas Achim – is the second-oldest synagogue in Rhode Island, after Newport’s Truro. Chartered on June 11, 1900, the congregation’s founders were Eastern European Orthodox Jews from Russia, Lithuania and Germany who emigrated to Rhode Island via New York.
Though the congregation had a minyan – the number of adult males needed to perform certain religious rituals and thus officially establish a congregation – they did not have a permanent home. They held services at a few different locations in downtown Bristol until their present home was constructed in 1916.
Though initially drawn to Bristol by the opportunities available at India Rubber, it was not long before the older generation returned to the professions they left behind in the old country, leaving the younger members of their families to work in the rubber plant. Thus Bristol gained an older generation of tradespeople, grocers, and merchants, who played an important role in Bristol’s business community as the 19th century rolled into the 20th.
Several early members of the congregation were prominent members of Bristol’s merchant class, including the Eisenstadt family, who owned a department store at the State and Hope Street location currently occupied by Citizens Bank; a variety store owned by UBS charter member Louis Molasky was in the State Street building which is the current location of Jesse James Antiques; and many Bristolians will remember Suzman’s, the clothing store that occupied a storefront on the west side of Hope Street between State and Bradford, until (relatively) recently.
From its initial establishment, the United Brothers congregation grew until the 1960s, when it contracted to the point where services were cancelled. It was through the stewardship of Dora, Lena, and David Leviten, who maintained the building, and the commitment of community leaders like Alton and Gloria Brody, Nancy Hillman, and Maynard Suzman that the UBS was able to enjoy a rebirth in the mid-1970s.
In the last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th, Bristol’s Jewish community experienced cultural assimilation quite unlike that experienced by other groups of immigrants in other parts of the United States, either before or since. The wealth of opportunity that came with the economic expansion of the period, coupled with Bristol’s distance from the urban centers of the northeast and the small size of the local Jewish community, meant that the individual families very quickly became part of the fabric of this overwhelmingly Christian town.
The Jewish families that established UBS found themselves welcomed not only by their neighbors, but also by their neighbors’ institutions. George Lyman Locke, the rector of St. Michael’s Church, helped the congregation search for a building, as well as helping to teach Hebrew to the children. St. Mary’s Church, just across the Town Common, donated all the synagogue’s pews.
Even as the early members of Chevra Agudas Achim seamlessly became part of Bristol, they remained firmly entrenched in their unique faith tradition. And yet, they have changed with the times.
“We're not associated with any denomination. Although we use a reform, synagogue prayer book. We don't belong to the reform movement,” said Ellen Bensusan of the UBS Centennial Committee. “And so we have a freedom here to tailor it to what we want.”
“I call myself reformative,” said Joel Gluck, an ordained Cantor who joined UBS during the pandemic and celebrated Shabbat and the High Holy Days over Zoom for nearly a year. “There are elements of conservatism, which is how I was brought up.”
“There are a lot of congregants who feel that there's comfort in a lot of the traditional melodies that you'd find in a conservative temple,” said Bensusan.
Today the congregation includes about 80 individual members; monthly services attract about 20 people, but organizers hope to fill the cozy sanctuary for Sunday’s celebration.
In preparation for their centennial, some members did a 100-year purge of the building.
“We pulled everything out of every closet, cupboard, everything was laid out on the floor,” said Bensusan. “We discovered all sorts of artifacts that had been hidden away.”
The newfound treasures included a candelabra that had been dedicated to a girl who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, and a plaque with the names of all the members who served in World War II.
“We’ve planned a short and sweet service,” said Bensusan of Sunday’s event, which will be followed by fellowship and refreshments. There will be proclamations from the federal and state government, recognizing UBS’s service to the community, and a congregant will present a history of the synagogue and congregation.
All are welcome.
“We’re the only synagogue that I know in Rhode Island that does not charge for the High Holiday services,” said Bensusan. “You can just come in. We're traditionally an interfaith congregation, a lot of the members of this congregation are either not Jewish or married to someone who's not Jewish. And no one cares about that here.”