Jews have lived in Rhode Island since the mid-17th century. After fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, many Jews fled to England and Amsterdam, then to Barbados, and finally arrived in Newport. There they were merchants and set up the second oldest congregation, Nephuse Israel (Scattered of Israel), in the United States. The congregation grew to such a size that they required land for a cemetery (see Touro Cemetery tour), and eventually the congregation was renamed Jeshuat Israel (Salvation of Israel).
As time went by, the demographics of Newport changed. After the Revolutionary War, the Jewish population in Newport was sparse; Jews would not return to Rhode Island in any number until the late 1800s.
Providence was the next center of Jewish life. Eastern European Jews arrived in South Providence in the mid-19th century and settled in three areas: downtown Providence, South Providence and the “North End,” which today is the Smith Hill neighborhood. Traces of these early communities can be seen in synagogues still standing (see South Providence tour) and in the oldest and last intact synagogue in Providence (see Sons of Jacob tour).
Along with Providence, Jews spread north into Pawtucket and Central Falls (see Pawtucket tour), and up to Woonsocket (see Woonsocket tour). In these cities they set up small businesses and factories. To the east, in Bristol, there was a thriving, though small, Jewish community which still exists today at the United Brothers synagogue.
In Providence, there was a migration to the suburbs and the East Side beginning in the late 1940s, which led to more Jews living in the outlying areas. This tour offers a view into the historic roots of Jewish life and culture in Rhode Island.
These tours show a world that no longer exists; it is historical in scope and deals with what once was.