My husband and I flew to Rhode Island Friday to be a part of the 110th anniversary of the founding of the United Brothers Synagogue in Bristol. Anyone who knows me realizes I'm a fairly secular person, so why would I fly to New England to celebrate the 110th anniversary of a once-orthodox synagogue? Actually, it's quite a story...
In the late 1800s, in what is now Latvia, a man named Joseph Benjamin was married to a woman named Etta. They had three surviving children when Etta died, and according to local Jewish tradition, although Joseph was 20 years older than Etta's younger sister Emma, Joseph married Emma. They had four children—the eldest of whom was Jacob—before moving to America and settling in Bristol, Rhode Island, where they had many, many, many more children. It seems Joseph was particularly fruitful.
Joseph, along with several other Jewish immigrants, founded an organization to maintain their Jewish identities and perform good works in their community. In 1900, they consecrated the United Brothers Synagogue. By 1905, btw, there were 36 Jews in Bristol.
When Joseph died, there was a schism between Etta's children and Emma and her children, and while most settled in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York, the ill will spread like a disease so that two generations later, few of the cousins of the original descendants knew of each other.
Jacob moved to New York and married Dora; they had two children, Emma and Martel. Later they moved to Texas where Jacob became what I imagine was quite the rarity: a Jewish wildcatter. When that didn't work out, they moved to Austin and started a cafe in a building that eventually became the University of Texas' bookstore. Eventually Jacob and Dora moved back to New York. I don't know when he died, but she passed away in 1979.
Marty married Rhoda and had two daughters, Carole and Sharon. They settled in New York. Emily stayed in Texas and married Sammy. They had four sons: Lewis, Paul, Harold, and Jack.
Harold is my husband, and until about a year ago, he had never heard of most of his family, let alone met them. But over time, a few of the cousins had independently begun to research the family tree, including Paula Reynolds, a most amazing woman whose work on tracing the family tree back in time has been phenomenal. My s-i-l Alice (married to Lewis) got involved early last year and last July there was a family reunion that we unfortunately could not attend as we were scheduled to be on a cruise ship to Mexico at the same time.
Meanwhile, a member of the United Brothers Synagogue, a PhD (who sat in on Bill Cosby's orals, from what I gather!), who had started doing family trees a decade earlier, decided to find the descendants of the synagogue's founders for the big anniversary celebration. When she and Paula found each other, they were able to locate the final missing pieces of this large family puzzle, so that 31 Benjamin descendants took part in this weekend's festivities.
Friday evening we attended a Shabbat service at the synagogue, led by the lay leader. The synagogue reminded me of what I imagine an old European or Russian shtiebel looked like. It's a small, unprepossessing building on the outside, but on the inside one immediately feels a strong sense of family and community. That sense of community extends beyond the building; local churches donated the pews and one of their reverends taught the synagogue's first group of children Hebrew.
The difference then and now is that rather than separating the women from the men, as the Orthodox do, this congregation had decided some time ago to become Re-constructionist (I'm still working on a definition for that, but I think it's becoming somewhat of a replacement for Reform Judaism as Reform Judaism moves to the right). The founders were forward-thinking: The by-laws allow a majority of congregants to choose their own sect. By the time we arrived Friday night, the place was packed, so we sat up top, where the women would have sat back in the day. Having that bird's eye view somehow made it all the more special. Not as special, though, as actually meeting some of the Benjamin relatives and hearing stories about the olden days.
Saturday morning we returned to the synagogue to look at old documents and photos, and to take part in an official get-together of the founders' descendants. One of the second generation Benjamin cousins had put together a book with photos and a narrative. Both fascinated me, particularly the photographs, because two of the men depicted—they would have been my husband's great-uncles—looked exactly like him. Some powerful genetics are at work in the Benjamin family!
After milling around and looking at the history, a videographer set up and some of those in attendance began to share stories. The first was Alfred, who would be Emily's first cousin, and the "patriarch" of the Benjamin family. He's 87 and sharp as a tack. A number of Benjamin descendants spoke, but we also heard heart-breaking and heart-warming stories from descendants of other founders, including a 35-year-old woman who never knew any of her extended family until she spoke up. It was but one of many Kleenex moments. Then three siblings spoke: their ancestors had died in 1910 and 1913, leaving young orphaned children behind. As a result, most family connections were lost.
What most people don't realize is that it's far easier to do a family tree if you're from Western European stock. Eastern Europeans present a problem for a variety of reasons, including name changes at Ellis Island. Apparently what's helping today are genealogy centers created by the Church of LDS. When I attempted to do a basic family tree a decade earlier, I could get no further than my mother's parents on her mother's side. She has no knowledge about any relatives on her father's side, other than "a cousin with pretty hair who used to visit once a week" when she was a young girl. The Benjamin family can now trace its roots to the 17th century.
As if discovering all these family members weren't enough, the icing on the cake is the kindness and generosity of the entire Benjamin clan. I wished oh-so-much that Harold's mother Emily had been able to make the trip, but beyond spending time with Lewis and Alice and Paul and Susie, my husband and I each quickly developed relationships with other family members. We're both in the process of Facebook friending, and after one of my new second cousins-in-law (I think) linked to my twitter feed, he proudly showed me his daughter's feed; she's a sportswriter at the Boston Globe. As the credentialed lexophile, I've even been given the task of setting up a sort of Benjamin book club. I can't wait.
Our weekend ended with a trip to a Jewish cemetery in Providence where Harold's grandparents are buried. It was there that we said goodbye to Lewis and Alice, and when we spoke on the phone with our daughter Rachel last night, we couldn't wait to begin sharing stories. Already we're thinking about another trip to New England where Rachel can meet the Benjamins.
It's possible I've presented some of this information inaccurately or incompletely. If any corrections are necessary, I'll make them.