From 1658 to now, Rhode Island’s Jewish heritage grows stronger.
Rhode Island has a rich Jewish history: In 1658 one of the country’s earliest Jewish communities was established in Newport. Touro Synagogue stands testament as the oldest Jewish house of worship in the United States. Most of the state’s earliest Jewish population was Sephardic (Spanish/Middle Eastern) Jews from Barbados. In Newport, they found a thriving seaport, where many of the Jewish settlers operated large retail and wholesale trade businesses that reached throughout the Colonies and abroad.
Jews did not arrive in Providence, however, until almost two centuries later. In 1838, Solomon Pareira, a native of Holland, moved to the capital with his wife. He opened a succession of clothing stores and raised his family. Within the next decade, the nucleus of a Jewish community had formed. By 1850, nine families with Jewish names were listed in the city directory. In 1855, the first congregation in the city was established — the Congregation of the Sons of Israel (now Temple Beth-El) — with Solomon Pareira as its first president.
The Jewish community in Providence grew significantly after 1880, as immigrants from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazi Jews) poured into the city. By 1885, the city directory listed about 250 Jewish names. Their number grew to almost 450 in the next five years and swelled to 992 by 1895 — a four-fold increase in 10 years. Such growth was truly impressive, especially when compared to the growth of the city as a whole. From 1890-1895, the Providence population increased 23 percent, while the number of Jewish families increased 131 percent. By 1900, the city directory included 1,607 Jewish names.
As the community’s size grew, so did its formal organizations and institutions. By the turn of the 20th century, new congregations had appeared and were meeting in homes or rented halls. In the 55 years following the inception of the first temple in Providence, no fewer than 23 separate synagogues received charters. Not all of these existed for the entire period, and several merged during the subsequent decades. The emergence of so many congregations was a good indication of the growth and distribution of the Providence Jewish community. They originally were located near the center of the city, but as the population spread out, so did the synagogues — first to the more peripheral areas of the city and then to the suburbs.
By the end of World War I, the tremendous growth of new organizations stopped. The institutional structure of the Jewish community of Providence was well-established, and few new organizations were chartered during the following decades. Thus began a period of consolidation and maturation, as the immigrants and their offspring built upon and molded the earlier structure to meet their changing needs. Many organizations took the form we recognize today.
Twentieth-century Jews expressed their sense of community through religious affiliation and by supporting Jewish social-service agencies. The chief beneficiaries were the Jewish Orphanage, Jewish Home for the Aged, The Miriam Hospital, Jewish Family and Children’s Service, and Jewish Community Center.
In 1937, the Jewish community in Rhode Island reached 30,000. According to a survey, in 1963 the Greater Providence Jewish population was 19,600, including 13,440 in Providence and Pawtucket. In 2001, the number of Jews in Rhode Island dropped to 16,000, including 14,200 in the Providence area.
Today, approximately 18,500 Jewish men, women, and children call Rhode Island home. Supported by many synagogues, Jewish organizations, and social service agencies, Jewish life flourishes throughout the state. The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island is the central address of the organized Jewish community and a strong link to maintaining a statewide Jewish connection.
May 28, 1945: 500 delegates from 51 Jewish organizations met and approved the formation of the General Jewish Committee of Providence, Inc., as a response to the atrocities inflicted on Jews in Europe during World War II.
July 11, 1945: the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations recognized and registered the General Jewish Committee of Providence as a corporation. The 15 incorporators represented a cross-section of the Jewish community:
Within the group, religious beliefs included Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism as well as outright secularism. Political views ranged from Socialist to Republican. What held the group together was a shared sense of Jewish community. Most of the members were Zionists; all were concerned with the fate of Jews in Europe and Palestine.
Post-World War II: the General Jewish Committee of Providence was fully enmeshed in the fabric of Jewish Rhode Island. In 1970, this body became the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, a volunteer-driven organization that provided community planning, leadership development, and philanthropy to ensure a strong and vibrant community.
1971: The building on Elmgrove Avenue in the heart of the East Side of Providence, known as the Jewish Community Center of Rhode Island (JCC) was completed. For decades it has become a welcome center for the community — Jews and non-Jews alike — and has offered services such as a fitness center, an indoor pool, an early childhood center, after-school programming, camp and enrichment classes, as well as special events. The facility also housed the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), which provided Jewish learning resources, classes, a creativity center, and education-related programming. In the years that followed, the role of the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island continued to evolve, as it faced greater challenges in an ever-changing economy.
January 2011: the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, the Jewish Community Center, and the Bureau of Jewish Education merged to become the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. By joining three communal organizations into one, we could improve the alignment of our mission, the quality of programs, and operational efficiency. Additionally, the Jewish Federation Foundation was established to fund various philanthropic goals.
Today: the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island continues to
2012: The Annual Campaign was supported by approximately 2,000 donors, raising just over $3.2 million, supporting a quality Jewish life for Jews everywhere, every day. The Alliance’s Foundation assets are approaching $46 million.
Regardless of its name, the Jewish Alliance continues to provide for the social, cultural, educational, recreational, and health-related needs of the Jewish Community, and our goal remains the same — to strengthen Jewish identity, family life, community, and the connection between the local Jewish community and Israel.
1658 First Jewish residents join the small but growing colony of Newport, Rhode Island.
1838 Solomon Pareira arrives in Providence.
1849 Land on New London Turnpike (now Reservoir Avenue) is acquired for use as a cemetery.
1850 The City of Providence directory lists nine families with Jewish names.
1855 The first Providence congregation, Sons of Israel, is established.
1909 The Jewish Orphanage of Rhode Island is established on the site of what is now The Miriam Hospital.
May 28, 1945 Some 500 delegates from 51 Jewish organizations meet and approve the formation of the General Jewish Committee of Providence, Inc.
July 11, 1945 The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations recognizes and registers the General Jewish Committee of Providence as a corporation.
1948 The State of Israel is created.
1970 The General Jewish Committee of Providence becomes the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island.
1971 The Elmgrove Avenue facility is completed.
May 5, 1988 The Rhode Island Holocaust Museum opens.
April 2007 Holocaust Museum is renamed the Holocaust Education and Resource Center of Rhode Island in to more clearly reflect its mission.
January 1, 2011 The Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, the Jewish Community Center, and the Bureau of Jewish Education merge to form the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.