Jewish Survival, Colonial Revival In Lisbon

If you're Jewish, a historian or a resident of the area; if you're a painter, photographer or a student of architecture, or if you are one of myriad other curious and various sorts, it's worth the trip to Lisbon to see the Anshei Israel Synagogue. Just don't be disappointed that it's over so quickly. It's a small building. Not nearly as big as its history.

The 600-square-foot Anshei (Men of) Israel Synagogue on Newent Road, near Ross Hill Road, was built in 1936. It served Jews from that area for more than 50 years until there was no longer a steady gathering of 10 Jewish men, a minyan, to perform the Orthodox prayer services. The doors closed for good in 1987.

Since then, despite loving care from some of its last congregants, the colonial Revival structure with the star of David adorning the outside, and the aron kodesh that held the torah scrolls on the inside, began to wither. The roof leaked, the walls were damaged, the floor beams were rotting and the exterior wasn't a lot better.

Still, by 1995, Ethel Botnick — a member of a founding family — worked to have the building recognized on the National Register of Historical Places. The town made some repairs, and in 1998, the Lisbon Historical Society took over care, repair and maintenance, providing American survival to colonial Revival. As funds allow, the society will upgrade wiring, restore some paneling and enhance the security system.

“We had to sign it over,” said Harvey Polinsky, who was but a child when his father, Sam, helped start the synagogue. He, upon the celebration of his bar mitzvah, became a man there, too. Today, he still runs a 400-acre farm in Griswold.

“We didn't know what to do. The historical society does a fine job of it,” he said. “Giving it away was more like saving it. There are no new Jews in the area. There was no future for it. We have to do what we can to find funds to finish the repairs and to take care of it.”

By we, he means he and Jerome Zuckerbraun, another founder of Anshei, and currently proprietor of Zuckerbraun's Department Store. I called the two men.

“You felt both,” said Zuckerbraun, a first cousin to Botnick. “Sad to give it away, but happy that someone wanted it.”

His words didn't come easily. And there weren't many of them.

“We didn't want to destruct it,” Polinsky said. He said he it was hard, watching Anshei Israel slowly return to the earth from which it arose.

I learned a lot about the synagogue's history through a long chat with Carol Read-Burns and her husband, Bill Burns. We sat together, talked and perused a 31-page booklet, “A Refuge in the Country,” penned by Erica Myers-Russo. It tells as much about the people who built the synagogue and worshipped there as it does about the building.

I told Read-Burns I wouldn't be going to see the building that day but would drive up again on the weekend. Of course, I couldn't help myself. When I left the charming couple's home, at the corner of Routes 169 and 138, I drove directly to the synagogue.

With the image of the neat little building in my mind, I was able to ponder it for the long ride back. So entranced was I in thought, I drove past the entrance to Interstate 395, and was nearing downtown Norwich before I knew it.

Much of the detail you would want to know is in the booklet. There are copies, free, at the Public Library of New London and Temple Emanu-El in Waterford. Just ask. And if you send a donation into the Lisbon Historical Society, at least enough to pay for the postage, surely one will be mailed to you.

This is the opinion of Chuck Potter.
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