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An Overview of Rhode Island Jewish History
written by George M. Goodwin, Editor, Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes
Rhode Island’s Jewish community is both exceptional and somewhat similar to its sisters. Despite its small size, our Jewish community has always sought to honor the past, grow stronger and more inclusive, and welcome the future with hope and gratitude. Yes, we gladly see ourselves within a never-ending cycle of dreams, blessings, responsibilities, and struggles, which sanctify our lives.
Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, probably never met a Jew. But one donated a park to Providence, marking the colony’s first settlement. J. Jerome Hahn, the first Jewish justice of Rhode Island’s Supreme Court, did so in 1931, five years before the state’s tercentenary.
Rhode Island’s Jewish history, begun during British rule, is extraordinary in at least two physical and symbolic respects. Newport has North America’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery, consecrated in 1677. Newport’s synagogue, completed in 1763 and later known as “Touro,” is also the oldest that survives in North America. New York City’s Congregation Shearith Israel’s building was 33 years older, but it was demolished in 1818 in order to erect a new synagogue on the same site, and since then the congregation built three more.
Following the American Revolution, Touro Synagogue remained far more than a beautiful or quaint building. In 1781, President George Washington paid his first visit. In 1790, in preparation for his second and in his written response to a letter by a Touro elder, Washington declared that the new federal government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Thus, Newport’s synagogue came to epitomize religious liberty and tolerance. Many Americans consider it a shrine. In 1946, when honored by the Department of the Interior, Touro became one of the country’s first National Historic Sites. In 1982 it was again honored with a postage stamp, which celebrated Washington’s 250th birthday.
The Jewish Alliance’s Humble Beginnings
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:
- Rabbi Morris G. Silk
- Dr. Elie Berger, a dentist;
- Alter Boyman, a peddler;
- Archibald Silverman, the owner of a jewelry factory;
- Frank Licht, a lawyer;
- Alvin Sopkin, who owned a clothing factory in Fall River;
- Joseph Ress, a lawyer who later manufactured jewelry findings.
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
- Provide community leadership, planning, and fundraising
- Serve as a voice for social justice
- Support programs and services that protect our vulnerable populations
- Enhance Jewish life in Rhode Island, in Israel, and around the world
- Create an exciting communal life that engages people in the Greater Rhode Island area in Jewish life and learning.
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.