The hidden figures behind Providence’s Hebrew Loan Associations

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In one of his articles for the R.I. Jewish Historical Association Notes (Vol. 2, No. 1), David Adelman included an item from “1001 Valuable Things Free,” published in a 1955 pocket edition by Bantam Books. The item was headed “Where you can borrow money without paying interest,” and the answer was the Hebrew Free Loan Society. Readers were advised to consult “your classified directory for the one nearest you.”

Whether the Hebrew Free Loan Associations in Rhode Island listed their phone numbers in the 1955 equivalent of the Yellow Pages is a question, as is whether non-Jews took advantage of the opportunity.        

Rhode Island had four Hebrew Free Loan Associations chartered by the state: Pawtucket/Central Falls, Woonsocket and two in Providence. Countless small businesses depended on the Free Loan for start-up funds or to tide them over a difficult time. Borrowed money paid for tuitions and the start of professional careers, unexpected medical bills, emergencies and more.

The first Providence organization, Gemilath Chesed, originated in the North End and held its first meeting on Feb. 4, 1903. The minutes stated that the gentlemen present “voted to loan money to make up a fund for use by the organization ....”

The list of the initial contributors included the name of one woman – Lena Lewando, the sister of Dr. Saul Lewando. The doctor, in addition to his practice, owned a millinery shop, where Miss Lewando worked. As George Goodwin pointed out in an article in RIJHNotes, she contributed the goodly sum of $50, like most of the men – but she is conspicuously absent from the photo of the founders and the first Board of Directors.

Two years and one month later, the Jews of South Providence decided to form their own Gemilath Chesed. Among the first to lend money to fund the new association was a woman, Sarah Saluck. Since we don’t have a photo of the founders and first Board of Directors of the South Providence Hebrew Free Loan, we do not know if Saluck was included in the group.

We do know a bit more about Saluck than about Lena Lewando. The name Sarah Saluck – misspelled – appears on a charter granted to the South Providence Ladies Aid Society. Her great-granddaughter, Jeanette Edelston Bernstein, told me how each Friday, Saluck would travel by streetcar to one of the local hospitals, where she was one of the volunteers who brought Shabbat meals to the patients.

Saluck must have been a woman of some means. In the summer season, she visited Adler’s Hotel, in Sharon Springs, New York, for the mineral baths. And she donated a Torah in memory of her husband to the Robinson Street Synagogue. That Torah played a large role in the history of the first Conservative synagogue in Providence, Temple Beth-Israel.

In the summer of 1921, a small group of men decided the time had come for an alternative to both Reform and Orthodox Judaism. Harry Rosen was one of the founders of the new congregation. As the High Holy Days were approaching, they hired a hall on Niagara Street, arranged for a student rabbi to lead the services, and sold tickets. Aaron Cohen of Twin Florists lent palm trees and greenery to brighten the rather drab interior. But there was a problem – no Torah.

A request to borrow a Torah was made to the Robinson Street shul. The answer was a vociferous no. If other congregations were approached, we do not know.

Rosen remembered his grandmother’s gift of the Torah, and asked for her permission to borrow it. Although “old school” in her attitude to Judaism, Saluck agreed, and used her influence with the officers to get them to lend the Torah. The services could now proceed and the new congregation was launched.

The Hebrew Free Loan Associations are an integral part of our history in Rhode Island. Two women were a part of that history, not mere footnotes.

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 info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.