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The Jews of Rhode Island
George M. Goodwin, ed.; Ellen Smith, ed.



Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture and Life

Brandeis University Press
2004 • 288 pp. 98 illus. 8 3/4 x 11"
American History / Rhode Island / Jewish History



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A richly illustrated survey of the history and culture of Rhode Island Jews.

Rhode Island as we know it began in 1636 when Roger Williams, an independent-minded “godly minister” banished from Massachusetts for promulgating new and dangerous opinions, founded a new colony, Providence, at the head of Narragansett Bay. Although none of Williams’s followers were Jews, some of his libertarian ideals would profoundly influence the future Jewish population.

Around 1677 a group of Sephardim (Jews of Iberian descent) from Barbados arrived in Newport. Despite legal protection, this tiny Jewish community on Aquidneck Island did not last. Newport’s Jewish community revived in the mid-eighteenth century, when trade with the West Indies brought new wealth to this British outpost. Touro synagogue, only the second built in North America, has endured as a masterpiece of colonial architecture. President George Washington’s letter to the “Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” written in 1790, also became a pillar of American religious liberty. For economic reasons, however, Newport’s Jewish community once again dispersed.

Rhode Island Jewry began to reestablish itself toward the end of the nineteenth century, when immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe settled mainly in Providence. By 1924, the state’s Jewish population reached 25,000. Many Jews worked in the state’s booming textile and jewelry industries, and others as peddlers and tailors. While some Jews would prosper as merchants and manufacturers, others, particularly women and children, were relegated to menial tasks. There were also Jewish farmers.

Following World War II, Jews were elected to numerous statewide offices and gained prominence in an array of professional, cultural, and philanthropic organizations. Jewish students and professors thrived at many of the state’s colleges and universities. In 1970, recognizing the need to work together, communal leaders established the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island.

Today about 18,000 Jews live throughout the Ocean State. In many respects, however, the Jewish community retains the character of a traditional small town. Many Jews have attended the same schools, married hometown sweethearts, and have remained loyal to neighborhood synagogues and charities. A day at the beach endures as an idyllic summer vacation.

This anthology celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, the journal that has presented and preserved much of Rhode Island’s Jewish past. The volume presents seventeen previously published articles or excerpts, two new essays, a timeline, and an extensive bibliography. There are nearly one hundred photographs, most published for the first time. Through the lens of The Notes, The Jews of Rhode Island provides a panoramic view of a famous yet little-known Jewish community.

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GEORGE M. GOODWIN is President of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association. ELLEN SMITH is Associate Director of the Gralla Program for Journalists at Brandeis University.






Wed, 23 Apr 2014 11:54:55 -0500