PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Sons of Jacob Synagogue is older than the Titanic, “talking” movies, and the invention of penicillin. It’s also the second oldest synagogue in Rhode Island.
The congregation formed in 1896 but since 1906, it’s been housed at 24 Douglas Ave. in Providence, which was built by Orthodox Jews who emigrated from Russia.
Many say the building, constructed in two stages in 1906 and 1926, is the major surviving remnant of what was once a large Jewish community in the Smith Hill neighborhood.
The upper level was designed by Harry Marshak, a self-taught architect and builder born to immigrants, who was likely the first Jewish architect to work in the Providence area.
But despite the synagogue’s rich history, its leadership says they are having a hard time surviving in 2020 and beyond.
Harold Silverman, the synagogue’s president, says starting as far back as World War II, the congregation has steadily declined from hundreds of members to just dozens.
“We had many men who served in World War II who either died or after their service, their families moved away,” Silverman explained.
The synagogue used to be big with families in the neighborhood, according to Silverman, with parents and grandparents encouraging their children to attend services. Most of those members and their siblings have since passed away, leaving the synagogue with only 30 members in 2020.
Silverman said they hope to transition the synagogue into a museum so the community can learn about Jewish history while keeping the synagogue alive. Silverman says there is no timeline as of now.
“This building was built by immigrants. It’s the whole immigrant story for everyone that comes to America – not just Jewish immigrants – for all immigrants. They can have a dream, build a dream, and it can come true,” added Shelley Parness, president of the Rhode Island Jewish Museum.
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
Silverman said in light of recent attacks across the nation, the synagogue has tightened its security.
“We continuously speak about it and we do the best we can communicating with the state and Providence police, and they have been great,” Silverman said. “On the high holidays, we have police out front.”
He also noted that the synagogue has been offered private security and has a fully functioning security system, as well as “an extremely supportive neighborhood that looks out for us.”