The Jewish Welfare Board, the former national association of Jewish community centers, surveyed the facilities and programs of the Providence JCC, on Benefit Street, in 1934. Highlighted in the final report was the need for the JCC to provide programming in the North End and South Providence.
In accordance with this recommendation, the JCC’s administration began planning a South Providence extension in October of that year. In space rented at various locations, activities for both children and adults were instituted. Lacking, however, was a home base that would serve as a center for the community and for activities. (No plans were announced for services to the North End.)
While negotiations were underway for the police station and property on Sessions Street as the site of a new JCC, the Jewish War Veterans offered the use of their building on Niagara Street for a South Providence neighborhood center. The offer was accepted. The building would serve as a temporary fix until a permanent solution could be found.
The problem was unexpectedly solved, in November 1952, by an offer to rent the soon-to-be vacated police station at the corner of Potters Avenue and Hamilton Street for $1 a year, provided the JCC made necessary repairs to the building, including replacing the boiler.
The renovations began in May 1954. The building would be known as the South Side Branch, not the South Providence JCC; “one center, two buildings” was the aim. The JCC board and committee structure were enlarged to include representatives from South Providence.
Of the two structures, Potters Avenue was the more spacious. Both had administrative offices, meeting and game rooms, a kitchen and craft rooms. In addition, Potters Avenue had space for a gym, an auditorium and a nursery school.
The “Dedication Week” for the new center took place during Hanukkah, Dec. 11-18, 1955. Providence Mayor Walter H. Reynolds, and other dignitaries from the city administration, the JCC and the General Jewish Committee participated in the formal dedication ceremonies on the first day. The rest of the week saw open-house programs and a sort of meet and greet, with representatives of the different committees – from nursery school to the elderly – each hosting an event.
In its first years, the South Side Branch hummed with enthusiastic volunteers and clubs for all ages, a film series and other entertainment. But by the middle of the next decade, it had become evident that, due to population shifts from South Providence to the suburbs and the East Side, attendance and participation were decreasing. Questions arose in 1966 about the further usefulness of the South Side Branch.
Two other important events occurred that same year. Plans had been underway for some time for an enlarged JCC to more adequately meet the perceived needs of the community.
After a lengthy and unsuccessful search for a suitable property, an exchange was once again arranged with the city of Providence. It involved trading the East Side property for a city-owned parcel just up the street, at the corner of Elmgrove Avenue and Sessions Street.
That same year, the board voted to change the name of the JCC from the Jewish Community Center of Providence to the Jewish Community Center of Rhode Island.
Just months later, in 1967, the South Side Branch closed. The building was sold to a nonprofit with the proviso that the “Golden Agers” be allowed to meet there one day a week.
The new, modern and larger JCCRI was formally dedicated in 1971. In addition to meeting rooms and lounges, its amenities included a gym and a pool. In 2013, the facility was renamed the Bonnie and Donald Dwares Jewish Community Center in recognition of a $1 million gift from the Dwares.
Five decades have passed since the dedication of the building on Elmgrove Avenue, which has now grown to house the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, the R.I. Jewish Historical Association, Jewish Rhode Island, the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, community agencies, meeting space, a preschool, a pool and a gym.
In 2016, the JCC underwent extensive renovations to modernize the building and its facilities and to improve accessibility for people with physical handicaps.
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.