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Valley Talk #4: B’nai Israel: Woonsocket’s Gorgeous but Little-Known Synagogue
Woonsocket’s Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel, was founded in 1893, but did not build its own synagogue until 1962. Beginning in 1904, it occupied a former church, at Greene & Bernon Streets, which has subsequently become home to many others. A new Woonsocket synagogue was envisioned as early as 1944, but plans did not move forward until 1960, when a fundraising campaign gained momentum and an architect was hired. Samuel Glaser, a Boston native, had designed numerous commercial, residential, and educational buildings, but had built only one synagogue, Newton’s Temple Shalom, in 1955. Though trained at M.I.T. as a traditionalist, Glaser succeeded as a modernist. In addition to bold forms and flowing spaces, he also sought handsome embellishments. Thus, for B’nai Israel he was instrumental in hiring several key avant-garde artists, including: Ludwig Wolpert for metalwork, Anni Albers for weavings and, most impressively, Avigdor Arikha for stained glass windows. B’nai Israel’s 30 windows, which illuminate the sanctuary and auditorium, may be the finest cycle commissioned by an American synagogue during the postwar era. Indeed, Glaser’s building remains an architectural treasure. Unfortunately, the congregation’s membership reached a peak of about 200 families during the 1960s. In recent decades, having struggled to survive, it now faces an uncertain future. What will become of Glaser’s masterpiece?

George M. Goodwin is an art and architectural historian with a special interest in synagogues. He belongs to Temple Beth-El in Providence, a notable example of modern design and decoration built in 1954. Goodwin, a past president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association, has edited its journal, Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, for 19 years. He also coedited The Jews of Rhode Island, which was copublished by the University Press of New England and Brandeis University Press in 2004. He is a frequent contributor to a monthly newspaper, Jewish Rhode Island.

Feb 19, 2023 01:30 PM in Eastern Time (US and Canada)

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