Flashback: A Catholic Home for Jewish Students

by thecowl.news on April 27, 2017


by Daria Purdy ’19

News Staff

While the Catholic and Dominican identity of Providence College has always been essential to its mission, research being conducted by Dr. Jennifer Illuzzi and Dr. Arthur Urbano reveals that Judaism has also played a part in shaping the identity of the College.

After years of research, Illuzzi and Urbano have put together their exhibit, Sons of Providence, to display their findings about Judaism’s impact on both PC and the city of Providence.

The Sons of Providence exhibit looks at the Jewish history of PC from 1917-1965 and is based on a study of alumni interviews, archived records, and archived newspaper articles. The journey to the completion of this project has been a long one, and it started nine years ago when Urbano, a professor in PC’s theology department, attended a Vatican conference with a rabbi from Cranston, Rhode Island.

Urbano relates how he was inspired by conversations at the conference to begin a lecture series entitled “Theological Exchange between Catholics and Jews.”

In the process of creating his lecture series, Urbano kept running into Jewish alumni of PC who told him the College once had a large Jewish population. Urbano was surprised by this phenomenon and decided that he had to look into it himself. As Urbano embarked on his research journey, he requested the help of Illuzzi, a professor in the history department. Since then, the research has been a joint endeavor between the two.

Urbanodd made onedd discovery atd the start of his research that particularly stood out to him. While reading an archivedd Providence Journaldd article, he discovered that and interreligious conference was held in 1932 at PC.

“I was floored by        this,” stated Urbano, “first, because of how early it is, and second, it occurred at a time when anti-Semitism was high in Europe and in America. Furthermore, it came in the time before Vatican II, when Catholics typically did not engage in these sorts of things with Protestants and Jews. It was extraordinary for its time.”

In addition, Urbano and Illuzzi confirmed the story that Urbano had heard from many Jewish alumni: there was once a significant Jewish minority at Providence College. Urbano relates the highest number he found to have been 16 percent of the student population in 1931. To put this in perspective, Urbano says that the current percentage of PC students who identify as Jewish is less than .5 percent.

Illuzzi and Urbano found various reasons for the high population of Jewish students at PC in the 1930s. One explanation they found involves the quota systems in place at other universities, and especially Ivy League universities, at the time.

Illuzzi pointed out that education is highly valued in the Jewish tradition, and thus highly motivated Jewish students were gaining admission to Ivy League universities in significant numbers.

She also remarked that “Ivy League schools saw themselves as perpetuators of the American bluebloods,” who were white and Protestant. Ivy League schools were alarmed by the rise in Jewish admissions because, as Illuzzi stated, they thought this would “degrade their institutions.” Thus, they put in place quota systems to limit the number of Jewish students admitted to their institutions.

While these quota systems were in place at Ivy League schools, PC had no such quota system. “PC says explicitly in its charter that it will accept students regardless of religious affiliation,” Illuzi stated.

Urbano also emphasizes this aspect of PC’s mission, stating, “PC was welcoming Jewish students at a time when other universities were not.”

Illuzzi and Urbano were also struck by the high levels of on-campus involvement they found from the 1930s at PC of Jewish students. They were on sports teams, involved in theater, and one was even editor-in-chief of The Cowl.

This phenomenon might not seem surprising or strange, but Urbano emphasizes that it must be looked at in historical context as Ivy Leagues were “creating a culture at their schools that made it very hard for Jewish students to integrate.”

At these schools, Jewish students were barred from different sports team and clubs. PC, however, was not only admitting Jewish students when other schools were not, but it was also allowing these students to become active members of the community.

The Sons of Providence exhibit includes archived Cowl and Providence Journal articles found by Urbano and Illuzzi, as well as other memorabilia of the Jewish experience at PC. Posters, meanwhile, explain and display Urbano and Illuzzi’s research.

The duo is also planning to make a documentary based on the alumni interviews they recorded. The exhibit also has an online component, which can be accessed at http://scalar.usc.edu/works/sons-of-providence/index. The exhibit is on display in the Admissions Welcome Center in Harkins Hall.

Urbano believes that this research has enduring importance for the current PC community as it strives to answer the question of what it means to be a Catholic and Dominican college. In the 1930s, being a Catholic school meant giving safe haven to those who otherwise could not find it.

Urbano relates that, in the 1930s, “the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the corner of Eaton Street and River Avenue.” Anti-Semitism was alive in Providence, yet PC students “were aware of this, and speaking out against it. The alumni I interviewed have the same Friar spirit as alumni today.”

These alumni faced discrimination in the 1930s, but at PC they found a place where they had more freedom and more integration and, despite the fact that many of the alumni Illuzzi and Urbano interviewed were well into their ’80s and ’90s, their gratitude towards PC was still very apparent. “[I was] touched by this,” Urbano stated.

Ultimately, for these Jewish alumni, PC was not just a school, but an institution that treated them as equals at a time when many institutions did not.