The story of a once vibrant community and its synagogue

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Anyone of a certain age who grew up in the north end of Providence knows that there was once a thriving synagogue there called Sons of Zion. The building proudly stood on Orms Street, near Charles Street, on a portion of the land now occupied by the Providence Marriott Downtown.

Many may remember the shul, but not many know the difficulties the congregation faced in bringing their dream to fruition. This is a bit of that backstory.

The Chevra B’nei Zion (Congregation Sons of Zion) was officially organized in 1875 by 17 Eastern European immigrants who had settled in the north end. The chevra met in a number of locations for seven years before they were able to open a synagogue on Canal Street.

As the flow of immigrants increased, the need for a larger, permanent synagogue became evident. In 1888, the congregation purchased a parcel of land at 45 Orms St., according to a contemporary observer, John A. Solomon, who wrote about it in his Historic Ramblings column in the Jewish Herald.  

The price of the Orms Street land was $3,000, a considerable amount in those days, especially since the land was very sandy. It would have to be cleared and leveled. 

The congregation managed to raise a down payment of $1,000, a huge sum for the immigrant population, with the remainder to be paid over time. 

Five years would pass before the congregation could sign a contract to have their synagogue built. The cost, $23,000, was once again a considerable amount – and an ambitious undertaking considering the financial circumstances of most of the members.

Two interesting events ameliorated the difficult situation. First, the city of Providence needed large quantities of sand, for reasons not stated. The congregation had plenty of sand and a shortage of money. A mutually agreed upon arrangement allowed the city to take all the sand and also level the land. This meant considerable savings when construction actually began.

Second, call it chutzpah, a “promise and prayer” (as Solomon did), or what you will, but construction began without a single dollar in the synagogue’s till! It seems that after paying for the additional expenses associated with High Holy Days services, there was no money left.

During the construction, the contractor urgently needed funds. A “frantic” fundraising effort ensued. It produced a flurry of checks and promissory notes and headaches, but it was enough to keep construction moving forward even before the mortgage was finalized.

The architecture, motifs and interior space of the new synagogue were designed after a careful study of several old synagogues.  According to Solomon, once finished, the beautifully embellished interior of the Sons of Zion shul was the talk of congregations in New York and Boston.

The synagogue opened for services in Elul 1892, with great rejoicing and due ceremony. But by 1961, faced with dwindling membership and declining funding, Sons of Zion merged with another Orthodox congregation, Anshe Kovno.

A decade later, Sons of Zion and Anshe Kovno had gone their separate ways and Anshe Kovno merged with the Conservative Congregation Beth David. In 1978, Sons of Zion became part of Congregation Beth-Sholom-Ahavath-Sholom-Sons of Zion. Today, that congregation is Beth Sholom, on Camp Street in Providence.

The union of Beth David-Anshe Kovno and Beth Am, in Warwick, to form Congregation Am David-Anshe Kovno, left only one surviving synagogue in the north end – Sons of Jacob, at 24 Douglas Ave. The synagogue, still in use today and the home of the Rhode Island Jewish Museum, stands as a testament to the once vibrant oldest Jewish community in Providence.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.