At about the same time Jewish immigrants began to settle in Bristol and Westerly, other immigrants from Eastern European cities and villages found homes in another small town in Rhode Island. They, too, founded a congregation and proudly built a synagogue. But despite the tenacity and persistence of their elders, this small community could not overcome increasingly lean years as its young people moved away.
I am referring to the town of West Warwick, whose congregation would have been 100 years old this year.
Arctic, Centerville, Clyde, Crompton, Phenix, Natick, River Point. The names of these mill villages, which were consolidated in 1913 as West Warwick, were familiar to the earliest Jewish residents.
When Abraham and Minnie Sternbach arrived in Arctic in 1912, they found a small Jewish community of some 12 families that lived mainly in Arctic and Phenix, according to Rebecca Twersky’s article in the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, “The Founding of a Jewish Community: The Early Years of Congregation Ahavath Shalom of West Warwick, Rhode Island” (Vol. 7, 1977). According to Sternbach, the earliest known Jewish settlers in the area were Meyer Shapiro and David Frank.
A few of the early settlers, including Shapiro and Frank, owned small stores, but most were peddlers plying their trade in the mill villages.
In total, there were enough men in the community to make up a minyan (prayer quorum), which met at the Sternbach home. The Robinson Street synagogue in Providence loaned the community a Torah for Shabbat and holidays. Buying Kosher food meant a weekly trip to Willard Avenue in Providence.
As the community grew, the members felt the need for a synagogue and a Hebrew school for their children. The search for a suitable location began in earnest after the end of World War I. Their mission received a surprising assist from the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, Prohibition.
The amendment was proposed by Congress on Dec. 18, 1917, ratified in January 1919, and the enabling legislation was passed on Oct. 28, 1919. Evidently the owner of the saloon at 1118 Main St. saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to sell. (An interesting footnote: only one state did not ratify the amendment – Rhode Island.)
The Main Street location was excellent, as was the asking price. It was a two-story structure with living quarters on the second floor and a saloon on the first.
Contracts were signed on Oct. 20, 1919. The Anchei Shalom Association was renamed Congregation Ahavath Shalom of Arctic and received a charter from the State of Rhode Island on Dec. 12, 1919.
Twersky, who interviewed Abraham Sternbach and also translated the original minutes from Yiddish to English, offered this comment on the chosen name, which translates to Lovers of Peace. She called the name “significant” and then continued, “With peace among the members and differences forgotten … the president [Sternbach] obtained a charter for the synagogue and a seal ....” Was Twersky’s comment a wish or a reference to a situation? There is no one to ask.
The conversion of the first floor from saloon to synagogue was completed in June 1919. The second story became living quarters for the Hebrew teacher, who also led the prayers. The small congregation of 30 families could not afford a rabbi.
With due ceremony, the newly completed synagogue was dedicated on Sunday, June 6, 1920. A young child carried the key to the door of the new synagogue on a pillow, and the Torah donated by David Frank was reverently placed in the ark. A handbill distributed in Providence announced the names of the Providence rabbis who were invited to the ceremony. Music was provided by the choirs of Sons of Zion, led by Cantor Myer Smith, and the Robinson Street shul, led by Cantor Morris Keller, as well as a “real band” from Boston.
In 1939, the building was renovated and the second story was removed.
By 1963, the Jewish community in West Warwick had dwindled to six or seven families from its high of 30. There was no longer a Hebrew school or a minyan at the temple.
In a poignant article, Paul Streicker (“Notes,” Vol. 5, 1968), recalled the synagogue’s history and described its current “low ebb.” The synagogue was now filled only on the High Holy Days or special occasions. He quoted Abraham Sternbach, “What’s going to happen? We don’t know .... In Newport they closed for 60 years. Maybe some day this West Warwick – you never know – could grow like Newport.”
By the end of the next decade, the synagogue building had been sold.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-331-1360.