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Of Touro Synagogue, Hasbro and 10 Other Things About Jewish Rhode Island

My Little Rhode Island Pony: Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld founded Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc., later renamed Hasbro, in Providence in 1923. Image by Hasbro

1) Eighteen thousand and five hundred Jews live in Rhode Island — about 1.75% of the state’s population.

2) The central courtyard at Providence’s Roger Williams National Memorial was donated in 1931 by Jerome Hahn, in memory of his father, Isaac Hahn, the first Jewish citizen to hold elected office in the city.

3) Newport’s Touro Synagogue, dedicated in 1763, is recognized as the oldest synagogue in the United States. It was designated a national historic site in 1946.

4) Two years after his 1852 visit to a Jewish burial ground in Newport, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.”

5) In 1923, Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld founded Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc., later renamed Hasbro, in Providence. The company, which initially sold textile remnants, would go on to sell the toys Mr. Potato Head, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, and Transformers, among many others.

6) George Wein, a jazz pianist and jazz promoter from Newton, Massachusetts, co-founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and launched the Newport Folk Festival five years later, in 1959.

7) The late CBS News president and producer for Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly (born Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer), grew up in Providence and got his start in broadcasting at the local radio station WEAN in 1937. In 1968, he was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame; in 2005, he was portrayed by George Clooney in the film “Good Night, And Good Luck.“

Bruce Sundlun Image by Wikimedia Commons

8) “A millionaire who made his fortune in telecommunications, [Bruce] Sundlun cut a larger-than-life figure that seemed inversely proportional to the size of his state,” read the former Rhode Island governor’s New York Times obituary in 2011. “He was a multiply decorated war hero. He had multiple homes. He had multiple marriages and multiple divorces. His exploits were widely chronicled by the local and national news media. He was combustible, confrontational and combative.” Sundlun stepped down as president of the Rhode Island’s largest reform synagogue, Temple Beth El, in Providence, to run for governor in 1990.

9) In a 2012 interview with the Jewish Voice and Herald of Rhode Island, author and National Book Award finalist Edith Pearlman said, “I loved the Providence of my girlhood — the trolleys, the Seekonk, the gritty downtown with the malodorous river running beneath it, the diners, and much more… [C]ertainly the Providence[s] of my youth — Jewish Providence, Quaker Providence, Yankee Providence — all have found a place in my work.”

10) In the early 1980s, Providence native David Cicilline (whose mother’s maiden name is Peskin) co-founded Brown University’s chapter of the College Democrats with fellow students John F. Kennedy Jr. and William Mondale, son of former Vice President and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale. In 2002, after serving seven years in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, Cicilline was elected Providence’s first Jewish — and first openly gay — mayor. He currently serves as U.S. representative from the First District of Rhode Island.

Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island

11) According to a September 2013 report from Brandeis University, “Living On the Edge: Economic Insecurity Among Jewish Households in Greater Rhode Island,” economic insecurity is a reality for upwards of half of the Jewish households in the state.

12) Hillel International estimates 15% of Brown University’s undergraduate population — around 1,000 students — is Jewish.

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