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Rhode Island

RHODE ISLAND, state in N.E. United States. America's smallest state, it was the last of the original 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution and the first to gain a Catholic majority. Its population in 2000 was 1,048,000, the eighth smallest in the United States. Named for Aquidneck Island in lower Narragansett Bay, the state is still known officially as Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Roger Williams, an outcast from Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded Providence, located at the head of the bay, in 1636. He established the First Baptist Church in America and a tradition of religious tolerance. After the American Revolution, Providence succeeded Newport, on Aquidneck Island, as the state's dominant city. The second of five rotating capitals, Providence became the permanent capital in 1901.

Growth and Decline

The first Jews settled in Newport in the mid-17th century, although the exact date is disputed. The earliest recorded date is 1658, when some Dutch Jews arrived from Curaçao, and the early Jewish community of *Newport flourished before the American Revolution. Such families as Rivera, Lopez, Hart, Seixas, Levy, and Pollock were leaders in industry and shipping, and were generally respected in the community. Most of the colonial period Jews were Sephardim and most of them supported the revolutionary cause. By 1822, the last Jew had departed Newport. Sixteen years later, Solomon Pareira, a Dutch merchant, became the first Jew to settle permanently in Providence. In 1849, he was a founder of the city's first Jewish institution, a cemetery on New London turnpike. By 1878, there were approximately 1,000 Jews in Rhode Island, almost all in Providence and nearby Pawtucket; most had relocated from New York City.

By 1905, there were approximately 8,000 Jews in Providence, a national leader in the production of woolens, jewelry, files, screws, steam engines, and silverware. Jews settled in two neighborhoods: those from Lithuania, Poland, and Byelorussia in the North End; those from Galicia, Romania, and Ukraine in South Providence.

In 1937, the Jewish community reached 30,000. In 1963, according to a scientific survey, the Jewish population of greater Providence was 19,600, including 13,440 in Providence and Pawtucket. In 2001, there were 16,000 Jews in Rhode Island, including 14,200 in the Providence area.

Business and Labor

During the early decades of the 20th century, many immigrant Jews labored in jewelry factories. A large number were self-employed as peddlers, tailors, shopkeepers, grocers, and shoemakers. Compared to Jews living in other middle-sized cities, those in Providence were exceptionally entrepreneurial.

The most enterprising, such as the Lederer brothers and the Silverman brothers, achieved success as jewelry manufacturers. In 1894, the Samuels brothers opened the Outlet Company, which became Providence's largest department store and, eventually, the anchor of a retail chain and a broadcasting network. Jacob Shartenberg's department store, begun in 1882, was the largest in Pawtucket. Across Rhode Island, Jewish businesses were familiar fixtures on Main Street and High Street.

In the decades following World War II, major businesses emerged. Ann & Hope was a national pioneer of discount department stores; Ross-Simons became widely known for its catalogue sales. American Tourister luggage and Hasbro toys became world leaders.


The first congregation, Sons of Israel, was chartered in 1854. After merging with Sons of David in 1874, it affiliated with the Reform movement. Jacob Voorsanger, a graduate of Hebrew Union College, became the first Rhode Island rabbi ordained in America. Sons of Israel and David's first building was erected in downtown Providence in 1890. The second, known as Temple Beth-El, was built in South Providence in 1911. The third synagogue, designed by Percival Goodman and built on Providence's East Side in 1954, remains one of the finest examples of modern synagogue architecture in New England. The 42-year tenure of William *Braude, Beth-El's scholarly rabbi, has been the longest in Rhode Island.

The oldest congregation in Providence remaining Orthodox was Sons of Zion, organized in 1875. Beth Jacob's synagogue, erected in 1906, is the only Jewish building to survive the North End, which was demolished during the 1950s and 1960s for highway construction and urban renewal projects.

The oldest Conservative congregation was Beth Israel, established in 1921 in South Providence. The next was Temple

Jewish communities in Rhode Island and dates of establishment. Population figures for 2001. Jewish communities in Rhode Island and dates of establishment. Population figures for 2001.

Emanu-El, which in 1927 erected a magnificent domed edifice, the first synagogue on the East Side and is still thriving in the same building site.

By the turn of the 19th century, Jewish communities sprouted in many of Rhode Island's smaller and somewhat isolated cities and towns. Newport's famous Touro congregation was revived, and others arose in Pawtucket, Bristol, and Westerly. In 1961, when Woonsocket's Conservative congregation built a second synagogue, it commissioned magnificent stained glass windows, textiles, and metalwork.

Hastened by the decline of South Providence and the availability of single-family housing elsewhere, new congregations were established around Narragansett Bay. In 1952, the first suburban synagogue was built in Cranston, only a few miles south of Providence. With the construction of new highways, such distant towns as Barrington and East Greenwich also became bedroom communities. In 2005, there were six congregations in Providence, 11 located elsewhere around the state.


A B'nai B'rith lodge was organized in Providence in 1870, a Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association a decade later. New immigrants established scores of mutual aid societies. For example, three Hebrew free loan associations have existed for more than a century. Except for Lawrence Spitz, who led Woonsocket's Independent Textile Union in the 1930s, Jews played minor roles in organized labor. They were active in a bevy of Zionist organizations, however.

Over the past century, almost all of the Jewish community's social service agencies have been built on or relocated to Providence's East Side. These have included a home for the aged, a hospital, an orphanage, a community center, a family counseling center, and a Holocaust museum. There are two day schools and a bureau of Jewish education. Since 1954, the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association has published an annual journal.

Recurring efforts to unify fundraising did not succeed until 1945, when Providence's General Jewish Committee was established. In 1970, this body became the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island. Since early in the 20th century Rhode Island has produced several leaders of national stature, Selma Pilavin, Sylvia Hassenfeld, and Roberta Holland who were chairs of the Women's Division of United Jewish Appeal – Hassenfeld also headed the American Joint Distribution Committee; Norman Tilles, president of HIAS; Harry Cutler who was president of JWB, and Marian Misch was president of the National Council of Jewish Women.


For generations, Jewish children flourished in Rhode Island's public schools. In recent decades, however, large numbers have enrolled in Jewish day schools and private academies. The number of Jewish public school teachers, administrators, and union officials has declined significantly.

Since its establishment in 1764 under Baptist auspices, Brown University, in Providence, has never imposed a religious test for admission. The first Jewish students (male and female) did not graduate until the 1890s, however. Samuel Belkin, who later became president of Yeshiva University received his Ph.D. from Brown, which recognized his rabbinic ordination at a European yeshivah and his manifest erudition as sufficient for entry into its graduate school without a secular undergraduate degree. In recent decades, Brown's undergraduate enrollment has reached 20 percent. There have been many distinguished Jewish scholars, including William *Braude, Ernest Freirichs, Calvin Goldscheider, Sidney *Goldstein, David Kertzer, Nelson Vieira, and Alan Zuckerman. For almost two decades Jacob *Neusner taught at Brown and during his era, Brown became the most influential American University in Jewish Studies producing scholars who went on to lead major programs throughout the United States. In 1971, Brown appointed the first Jewish chaplain in the Ivy League, and its Hillel program now occupies expansive quarters. Many Jews from Rhode Island and elsewhere have been trustees and donors. Sidney Frank of New York has become Brown's greatest benefactor.

Jews have taught and studied at most of Rhode Island's universities. Like Brown's Maurice Glicksman, the University of Rhode Island, in Kingston, has had a Jewish provost, David Gitlitz. Aaron Siskind, a master photographer, taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. Jews have also taught and studied at Providence College, a Dominican institution. Sol Koffler donated buildings to many campuses.

Prominent in the professions, most Jews have obtained postgraduate training beyond Rhode Island. Brown established its medical school in 1972, under the deanship of Stanley Aronson.


As Democrats and Republicans, Jews have served in the state legislature since the 1890s. There have been two Jewish governors: Frank *Licht, first elected in 1968; and Bruce Sundlun, first elected in 1991. Jews have been elected to every statewide office, including three as attorney general. David N. Cicilline is currently mayor of Providence.

Leonard Holland was the longest serving adjutant general of the National Guard. Three Jews have served on Rhode Island's Supreme Court, and several have been close advisers to Senators.

Wider Impact

Jews have actively participated in Rhode Island's cultural life, especially during the past half century. The state's major theatrical company, Trinity Repertory, originated at the Jewish Community Center. Daniel Robbins, the first Jewish director of Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art, helped create its core collection of modern art, the gift of Selma Pilavin.

Active in civic affairs, Jews have helped lead the United Way, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the ACLU. Rhode Island's Children's Hospital was named for its largest donor, Hasbro. Irving Fain championed fair housing legislation, and in 1965 three rabbis marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. A Jewish philanthropist donated the Roger Williams Spring, where Providence began, to the city.


G.M. Goodwin and E. Smith (eds.), The Jews of Rhode Island (2004); J. Perelmann, Ethnic Differences: School and Social Structure among the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Blacks in an American City, 18801935 (1988); J. Smith, Family Connections: A History of Italian and Jewish Immigrant Lives in Providence, Rhode Island, 19001940 (1985).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.