It was that time of year again, that interval between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The first harvest of Italian prune plums had appeared in the market – it was time to find the plum tart recipe that Yetta Glicksman shared with me many years ago. The tart had become our delicious traditional dessert for the first night of Sukkot.
A second arrival during that interval, courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service, was a manila envelope from The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. It contained a list of phone numbers for me to call on behalf of the annual fundraising campaign.
Yes, I still make calls, because I cannot say no to Maybeth Lichaa, who serves as co-chair of the Annual Campaign community division. I also cannot break this autumn tradition of so many years, more years than I care to count.
Many decades have passed since the first successful R.I. Jewish organization devoted to community-wide fundraising and planning – The General Jewish Committee (the name was suggested by my uncle, Alter Boyman) – took root in Providence, in 1945.
Attempts at some form of community organization in the 80 years before the founding of the General Jewish Committee had either failed or only partially succeeded. Deep divisions and mistrust within Providence’s Jewish population, stemming from differing ideas of community, had prevented a successful outcome.
The Providence City Directory of 1850 lists nine Jewish family names. Five years later, that number had doubled. These early settlers were, for the most part, young. Though not necessarily from Germany, German was their native language, thus earning these East European immigrants the sobriquet “Deutchen” (Germans).
They arrived with capital and started small businesses in the downtown area, where they also lived. As the downtown commercial area grew, they moved into the section of the city bounded by Broadway to the west and Elmwood Avenue to the south.
By the time the first great immigration wave of East European Jews was beginning to have an impact in Rhode Island, these early Jewish settlers had founded their own comfortable community, with a Reform religious center (Congregation of the Sons of Israel and David), a sisterhood, a beneficial lodge for men and one for women, and a fraternal organization or two. The lodges and fraternal organizations dispensed aid when needed.
In the wider community of Providence, they had also achieved a comfortable place in the business, social and political spheres.
All this seemed threatened by the influx of the mostly destitute Yiddish-speaking East European Jews, who settled primarily in the city’s North End, in the vicinity of Charles Street and Constitution Hill.
Ten years later, Willard Avenue, in South Providence, became the hub of a third Jewish community, also of East European immigrants.
The “Deutschen” tried to assist their needy brethren, but were limited by what they could do financially and by their disdain for the Yiddish language, which many considered to be just jargon.
The new immigrants had their own ideas of what a Jewish community should include – a free loan association, a sheltering society, help for the aged and the orphaned, and Orthodox synagogues where they could chant familiar prayers, in familiar accents, with their landsleit (Jews who came from the same area).
Since the Deutschen had no need of any of these, the immigrants founded their own social and self-help agencies in the North End. A similar pattern developed in South Providence.
Furthermore, the North End Jews considered themselves superior to the South Providence Jews – and both groups resented the Deutschen. They also considered the attitude of the Deutschen’s donors condescending, and they were horrified by the Deutschen’s Reform religious practices; secularists in their midst they could tolerate, but not what they considered assimilation.
The duplication – sometimes triplication – of relief and social work groups in the three divisions in the Jewish population made for chaotic conditions. As early as 1896, Rabbi David Blaustein, of Congregation of the Sons of Israel and David, attempted to introduce a reasonable approach.
In coordination with the North End immigrants, he proposed establishing a central agency to not only dispense funds (mainly from his congregants) but to also help the impoverished recipients (from the North End) become self-sufficient.
This project, as well as other similar proposals in the next decades, could not overcome the resentments on all sides.
An exception to the prevailing divisions occurred in 1905. As the plight of the survivors of the Kishinev Massacre, in Russia, became known, the Jewish areas of Providence mobilized as a community to raise funds for relief, as did the Jewish communities throughout the state.
But other attempts at community organization continued to hit obstacles, including one in 1922 that was recorded by David Adelman in the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society Notes (Vol. 3, 1960).
According to Adelman, all the Jewish organizations – more than 50 – were asked to send delegates to a meeting in May that would subsequently be known as the All-Jewish Conference.
From the outset, at the first meeting, divisions arose. Since Prohibition was now the law, Rabbi Samuel Gup, of Temple Beth-El, wanted to discuss the contentious issue of prohibiting the sale of “sacramental wines,” while Marion Misch took exception to the use of Yiddish during the conference.
Before the second meeting, a letter from the aforementioned congregation voiced strong objections to the All-Jewish Conference for being “un-American” and segregating, and refused to participate further even though members of the congregation were involved in planning the Conference.
That was the end of the All-Jewish Conference, but not of recognition of the need for planned community action, even if not on the proposed all-encompassing scope of the conference.
Efforts continued, with some success in uniting previously competing organizations and creating order.
Over time, demographics and upward mobility played a role in changing attitudes. By 1945, the time was ripe for a community organization embracing all segments of the Jewish population – and The General Jewish Committee was born.
And so my last autumn tradition, is remembering the anticipation of that first campaign and the participation of family and family friends. And my hopes for its current iteration.
GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-331-1360.