Lisbon Meetinghouse May Be One-of-a-kind In Nation

Lisbon — The tiny historic meetinghouse on Route 138 looks like many that dot New England's rural landscapes, except for the blue Star of David at its peak.

Built in 1936 by 15 Orthodox Jewish immigrant families, the white clapboard building for decades served the small but devout Polish and Russian immigrant Jews who lived in Lisbon, Plainfield, Griswold and Sprague.

But the Jewish immigrants who began arriving here from Europe after World War II sought out more modern synagogues in larger communities.

The one-room Anshel Israel Synagogue saw its membership dwindle throughout the 1940s and 1950s. After that, services were limited to holidays until the synagogue closed its doors in the early 1980s.

It has sat, largely untouched, since then. But now the Lisbon Historical Society is undertaking efforts to preserve the structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The society recently applied for a state historic preservation grant to undertake repairs at the synagogue, though the society's president, Caroline Read-Burns, says it's unlikely the society will be awarded any money this year. In each of the last two years, the society has gotten state grants for the John Bishop House in Newent Center and is unlikely to get more funding for a while.

Still, the synagogue is so small the society might be able to tackle some repairs without expending huge amounts of money, Read-Burns said.

The society, she said, would like to improve the building enough to open it once a week for public tours. The synagogue was open during Walking Weekend events last year and interest in the structure and the people who built it was high, she added.

The synagogue may be the only one of its kind in the country, she added. On the outside it was built in the traditional style of a New England meetinghouse. The inside, however, “is straight from Czarist Russia,” David Ransom, an architectural historian, wrote in a letter of support for the state grant.

Jerome Zuckerbraun, who owns a small department store in Jewett City and was among the last of the synagogue's members, remembers going to services there each week. As an Orthodox congregation, he said, members were required to walk to synagogue and women could not sit with men.

Since this was the New World, however, some rules were not as strictly enforced, Zuckerbraun and Read-Burns said.

Members from far-flung areas, for instance, could get a ride to Lisbon and walk the last mile or so. Curtains were not required to separate men and women, as was the norm for Orthodox services in Poland and Russia.

Zuckerbraun's father, Isaac Zuckerbraun, was a Polish immigrant and founding member of the synagogue. He and other Jews who wanted a place to worship pooled their money to build the 20-foot by 33-foot synagogue when Harry Rothenberg, who lived nearby, donated the land. Rothenberg later became its first cantor.

The building had no heat or running water. A small wood stove kept the congregation warm in cold weather and an outhouse once stood behind the building.

The town about 20 years ago convinced the synagogue's last six members to donate the property to the town.

The original alter and “sacred arc,” where the congregation's Torah was once kept, are still intact. A large gold curtain, with Hebrew writings embossed on it, conceal the arc's interior. A menorah sits on a nearby podium and five wooden, backless benches sit neatly arranged before the alter.

The building is beginning to show signs of neglect, however. Squirrels have chewed away some of the wood around the windows, most of its light fixtures are missing and the wall behind the small stove is buckling.

Now that the Historical Society is wrapping up its preservation program at the Bishop House it is hoping to turn its attention to the synagogue.

“We haven't done anything here and I'm feeling guilty about it,” Read-Burns said.
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