Seventy years ago, David Charak Adelman saw his idea for a new organization become a reality.
For many years, Adelman had been collecting “Rhode Island Americana” – printed materials and records relating to the history of his home state. As part of this, at first unconsciously, then deliberately, he began searching for books and items on Jewish communities and their involvement in R.I. history.
Adelman found that in histories of Providence and Rhode Island written in the 19th and early 20th century, Jews were barely mentioned, ignored or vilified. He also found serious errors in books, written by Jewish authors, about the Jewish presence in Colonial Newport.
At the time, there was no central agency in the state that was tasked with the collection, archiving and study of materials pertaining to the Jewish communities.
The need for such an agency became even more apparent after a fire, in the late 1940s, destroyed some of the 19th-century records of Congregation Sons of Israel and David (now Temple Beth-El, in Providence). At the suggestion of Rabbi William G. Braude, Adelman undertook the challenge of writing the history of the congregation.
The task, Adelman later wrote, proved to be taxing and time-consuming since it relied on outside sources to reconstruct as much as possible. And he knew that other big events were approaching that would also need to be documented, including the 100th anniversary of the congregation and the tercentenary of the Jewish settlement in New York.
An article by Beryl Segal in the Jewish Herald on Jan. 5, 1951, titled “Anniversary of a Failure,” strengthened Adelman’s resolve to bring an idea he had to fruition.
The Herald article memorialized Adelman’s failure to achieve a goal he had set for himself – to identify the early Jewish settlers in Providence. Who were they? When did they live? He had set aside five years of free time on weekends, from 1945 to 1950, to search libraries and archives for Jewish names in records and old newspapers, to read tombstones at the North Burial Ground, in Providence, and to meet with long-time residents of the city.
Over the years, the number of filled notebooks, folders and index cards on Adelman’s desk grew. By 1950, he had learned a great deal and amassed valuable information. But his findings were only the tip of the iceberg. The project needed more than dedication and free weekend time.
On Sept. 11, 1951, Adelman and Alter Boyman, William G. Braude, Israel J. Kapstein, Arthur J. Levy, Matilda J. Pincus and Beryl Segal received a charter from the state for the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association. The stated purpose was “to procure, collect and preserve records, pamphlets, letters, manuscripts, photographs, paintings, and any other materials pertaining to the history of the Jews of Rhode Island,” to encourage and promote the study of such history with lectures and other events, and to publish and diffuse information about such history.
The founders adopted the Star of David as the RIJHA’s logo, with the Hebrew words for “To Remember” in the center.
In the name of full disclosure, two of the founding members are family. Alter Boyman was married to my mother’s cousin, but to us he was always our beloved Uncle Alter. Beryl Segal was my father.
The R.I. Jewish Historical Society’s first office was a bookcase in borrowed space. The first archives were housed in the trunk of David Adelman’s car. The first volume of the RIJHA’s Notes, Vol. 1, No. 1, listed four patrons, nine sustaining members, two active members and 21 contributing members.
Seventy years ago, the seeds of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association were planted and began to grow. As each generation takes its place in the history of the Jews in Rhode Island, the RIJHA continues as the repository and the archive for our collected, collective history, as well as a center for research, for study, to teach, to inform, to understand the present by remembering the past.
From generation to generation is the headline on this article, and it has personal meaning for me. My father served as the second president of the RIJHA, I had the honor of serving, 1985-88, and this year, my son, Harold Foster, was elected president. From generation to generation.
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.