When Jews were Friars: New research about Providence College

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On March 30, more than 60 people, including a coterie of priests and rabbis, attended a program at Providence College sponsored by the Theological Exchange Between Catholics and Jews. They gathered in Harkins Hall, the college’s original structure, which opened in 1919. The evening’s principal lecturer was Arthur Urbano, an associate professor of theology, who spoke authoritatively and passionately about PC’s pioneering Jews.

When he began his research three years ago, Urbano expected to finish within a few months. But his efforts grew in scale and complexity, and he received grants from the Rhode Island Foundation’s Horowitz, Gross, and Bliss Fund and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. His determination and resourcefulness will culminate this fall, during PC’s centenary, with a full-length documentary film. The evening’s audience was captivated by some highlights, which featured interviews with a dozen Jewish alumni and their families.

Urbano titled his research and film “Sons of Providence” for several reasons. He explained, for example, that most of the college’s Jewish students, who were commuters from the city’s North End, belonged to nearby Orthodox congregations such as Sons of Zion, Sons of Israel and Sons of Jacob.  But Jewish students also shared a providential history with their Catholic peers. Providence College might have been more accurately named “Dominican College,” but its founders sought a more ecumenical outlook and mandate. Women would not be admitted until 1971.

Urbano imagined identifying Jewish students by typical names, but he discovered that application forms, which normally recorded Catholic parishes, also listed names of synagogues. So he and his research assistants examined the applications of more than 8,200 enrollees between 1919 and 1950 (after which information about religious backgrounds dwindled).  By 1965, at least 383 Jews had enrolled, representing about 5 percent of the student body.

The first Jewish student, Joel Novodgrosky, from Westerly, enrolled in 1922. Like many of his Jewish successors, he remained only a year or two.  Some transferred to other colleges and universities or were able to enter graduate programs without bachelor’s degrees.

Jewish enrollment accelerated in 1927, when there were 14 young men out of a total enrollment of only 288.  A dozen years later, Jewish enrollment may have been as high as 16 percent, but it usually fluctuated between 4 and 14 percent. 

So why did so many Jews choose PC? In the absence of a public institution, there were few local opportunities for poor but ambitious young men. In the 1890s, Brown University (and later Pembroke, its women’s college) began admitting small numbers of Jews, especially commuters. But Rhode Island State College, in Kingston, may have been too distant for others who needed to support themselves and possibly their families. Although the cost of attending PC was nominal, several Jewish students received generous scholarships.

Urbano believes that although Jewish students were not necessarily better qualified than others, PC sought to overcome a false reputation of exclusivity and prejudice. In 1932, with key support from some of Providence’s Reform Jewish leaders, PC and Brown cosponsored an interfaith seminar on human relations that attracted 1,000 participants.

During World War II, when most PC students served in the military, Jewish students helped temporarily fill a gap, but these young men would also leave in large numbers.

Many Jewish students either returned after the war or began their studies as beneficiaries of the GI Bill. The 1950s and early ’60s were a halcyon era, for many Jewish students, including clusters from Pawtucket, Woonsocket and Fall River, Massachusetts, participated in nearly every extracurricular activity and some students, including Edward Feldstein ’64, were elected to leadership positions. 

Although not required to take religion courses (or attend classes during Jewish holidays), Jews were expected to take numerous philosophy courses. The late Robert Krasner ’51, who became a biologist, was one of PC’s early Jewish professors and remained there his entire career.

A 14-minute excerpt from the “Sons of Providence” film emphasized many Jewish students’ close friendships with their non-Jewish peers as well as with Dominican professors.  Several interviewees said they believe that PC was an ideal place for them to learn and grow. One proud graduate was Leonard Sholes ’36, who passed away this year at 102.  His three sons were present at Harkins Hall to hear him kvell.

Why did Urbano decide to terminate his study with the class of 1965? By that time, as opportunities arose elsewhere, Jewish enrollment had declined.  Today, among 4,000 undergraduates, only 13 identify themselves as Jews. But the college’s commitment to interfaith understanding has only deepened, even preceding the publication of the Second Vatican Council’s landmark reform, “Nostra Aetate.”

A decade or two ago, it would have seemed bizarre for a PC scholar to lecture about a single photograph, taken around 1928, which shows the cantor and five choirboys of Sons of Zion. But this is exactly what an associate professor of history, Jennifer Illuzzi, did in her presentation, “The Smiths and Smith Hill: A Campus, A Community, A City.” She explained how three choirboys, including the cantor’s sons, Jacob and Abraham Smith, were able to attend PC. And the third boy, Maurice Greenstein ’48, became the college’s first Jewish valedictorian.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An exhibit of the research is on display at Harkins Hall on the Providence College campus until May 5.

GEORGE M. GOODWIN recently completed his 13th year as editor of “Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.”