For the past six years, the old Temple Beth-El Synagogue has stood empty, with its windows boarded up and grass uncut. But today, new flowers are blooming in its backyard and its windows now sport murals featuring rainbows, outstretched hands and the sun. Students from Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design and Providence College joined forces to restore the 101-year-old synagogue on Broad Street as part of RISD’s annual Alternative Spring Break project.
The six-day project, which involved cleaning and renovating the exterior of the Broad Street synagogue, marked efforts to transform the synagogue into a community space for South Providence. The temple, which fell into disrepair when its congregation relocated to the East Side of Providence, was broken into last spring, leading to water damage and defacing.
Students planted flowers, decorated the temple’s exterior with artwork and began archiving documents found within the synagogue last week. The group is discussing with community members how the building will ultimately be used.
Originally, the group planned to clean out the temple’s main sanctuary, but experts inspected the space and discovered unsafe asbestos levels. Until the asbestos is removed, the group is limited to caring for the exterior of the building.
Nevertheless, students were excited by “the appeal of the abandoned building,” said coordinator Rachel Himes ’15, a student in the Brown/RISD Dual Degree program.
“I just think people were excited because it’s historic, it’s old, it’s ancient,” she said.
Together, a core group of fewer than 20 students raised about $8,000 for items like work gloves, paint and cleaning equipment through film screenings and a clothing sale. Donations were matched by the RISD Community Service Office. The project was also sponsored by the RISD Center for Student Involvement.
Unlike previous RISD Alternative Spring Break projects, the synagogue project was accessible to all students. In the past, projects have been restricted to students enrolled in particular courses, and service projects are usually not local. Last year, students traveled to Florida for a Habitat for Humanities project.
This year, RISD wanted to provide students with “a co-curricular service opportunity that would be accessible regardless of what course or major they’re in,” said Andy Jacques, community service coordinator at RISD.
“There’s the convenience’s sake, but there was also this interest in seeing the neighborhood that their community is part of,” Jacques said. “They wanted to see Providence and see parts that they didn’t usually get out to go to.”
The synagogue itself emerged as a potential site after a presentation at RISD by Adam Bush, a local resident, who adopted the synagogue project with fellow resident Sam Seidel ’02 last year. Bush and Seidel are currently fundraising to purchase the space from the temple’s owners this summer.
Bush highlighted the historic value to the community of restoring the space.
“We were just talking to as many people as we could” and giving tours of the space to draw awareness, Bush said. He reached out to RISD through a connection with an administrator and eventually connected with Jacques. They began discussing the project in early January.
Jacques brought together a group of students who met “weekly to think about why they would want to do this project, how they could raise funds to support this project in this week and what it would mean to have a long-standing relationship with a space like this,” Bush said.
Springing into action
Ganaelle Joseph ’15, who decided to help after noticing a Morning Mail announcement last Thursday, spent most of her week helping out with landscaping and artwork.
“I’ve painted – I could be a RISD student right now, the way I look,” she said, gesturing to her paint-splattered clothes after priming planks for artwork. “We did a lot of digging in the backyard,” she added, noting that she had already gotten blisters from evening out the potholes in the backyard of the building.
Michelle Cho, a sophomore at RISD, also helped with landscaping and artwork, adding colorful murals to cover some of the synagogue’s boarded up windows. She noted the attention the art has already been drawing to the building.
“People would just look at us and wonder, ‘What are those young students doing?’” she said.
Graduate students at Brown have also found ways to be involved. The synagogue housed numerous books and paperwork when it fell into disrepair, and many of those documents were damaged by water and mold.
“We’re just here to help catalog all of the miscellaneous papers we find,” said Erendina Delgadillo GS, a master’s student in Public Humanities.
Maria Quintero GS, also in the master’s program in public humanities, noted the historical value of the documents they were salvaging.
“Especially before official archives and the standardization of the preservation process, churches often served as those spaces where history was kept,” Quintero said. “We’re interested in how the synagogue was used by the community and the services it offered.”
Students are also helping with the project’s business plan and outreach.
“So far, what we’re trying to do is figure out what the space is going to be,” Tim Natividad ’12 said. Natividad is a C.V. Starr Fellow and received funding from the Swearer Center for Public Service for the Broad Street synagogue project.
“There’s a lot of variability in what we can use this space,” he said. “What I’ve been doing is setting up a series of community dialogues or open houses and having members of the community and asking them what they would like this to be.”
The students are engaging in a dialogue with the community because “it’s not our place or our right to come in and say, ‘This is the vision it has to be,’” Bush said.
Community members have been largely receptive to the idea of a community space, Natividad said.
“We’ve heard a lot of concern about community centers, cultural centers, even an athletic space,” he said. “People have expressed a need for that.”
The students said they hope to continue the project beyond spring break. “A week is not really a sufficient amount of time to make things happen,” Himes said.
Even graduating is not enough to keep some students away. Though Natividad is moving to New York after graduating this May, he plans “to shuffle back and forth and really rack up the miles on that Acela Express, or maybe just Peter Pan,” he said. “I want to be here. I want to get my hands dirty and keep working. There’s a lot of stuff we’ve got to keep doing.”