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From the start, the hallmark of the Providence College curriculum has been its grounding in the western liberal arts tradition. The 1932 Bulletin of Providence College stated that at the heart of the curriculum was “the principle that every human being…is primarily obligated to the realization of perfection or fullness of life according to the specific and individual capacities” of each person. The earliest curriculum was modeled on the centuries-old educational approach of the Dominican Order, emphasizing the philosophy of Aristotle and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Courses in Philosophy and Christian Doctrine were required, with Theology courses prescribed for all eight semesters. The curriculum underwent periodic revision in this period, most notably in 1936 and 1946. The Liberal Arts Honors Program was introduced in 1957. The Development of Western Civilization program would be inaugurated later in 1971.
Throughout the period studied here, there was an irregular application of the Theology requirement for Jewish and other non-Catholic students. According to the earliest catalogues, non-Catholic students were not required to take the courses in Christian Doctrine, but were encouraged to attend. From the late 1920s into the 1930s, the catalogue stated that attendance was “obligatory” for all students. In the 1940s, however, the courses were obligatory for Catholic students while only attendance as auditors was required of non-Catholic students. By the 1951 edition of the student handbook, the language regarding non-Catholic students had changed remarkably.
Similarly, non-Catholic students were not required to participate in the annual spiritual retreat, which was obligatory for all Catholic students (with severe penalties, including suspension for a year if missed!). Philosophy courses were always required for all students, usually beginning in the sophomore year. In the 1950s and early 1960s, non-Catholic students could take an additional Philosophy course in place of Theology. One course that was commonly taken by Jewish students in the mid to late 1940s was Philosophy II, The History of Religious Influence.
Interviewees who attended the College in this period described these various experiences. Some sat in as auditors in religion classes with Catholic students. Others describe being in separate religion classes with Protestant students. Still others voluntarily took Theology courses out of a desire to learn about the Catholic faith. Many of them described these courses as fruitful experiences of interreligious learning. Jewish students enrolled in a four-year bachelor’s program were required to take the same Philosophy courses as Catholic students. They vividly recall taking courses in areas such as Theodicy, Cosmology, Metaphysics, Ethics, and Logic, all rooted in the Christian philosophy of Aquinas.
Jewish students enrolled in all of the degree programs offered by the College. The most common majors for Jewish students included Biology, Business, Education, and Social Science. In the 1920s and 1930s many enrolled in the College’s two-year Pre-Medical program before going on to medical school. The names of Jewish alumni who went into the medical and dental professions – Paul Cohen '34, Hymen D. Stein '35, and Theodore Gorfine '43 – are listed on a plaque in the Harkins rotunda as donors who contributed to the statuary decoration of saints on the exterior of Harkins Hall.
Interviewees reported that the Dominican administration and faculty respected Jewish religious sensitivities and practices. Jewish students were excused from classes when they fell on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. All classes, not just religion classes, began with a prayer. However, Jewish students were not required or compelled to participate. Herbert Leshinsky '52 reported that he made it "abundantly clear" that when the class prayed the Hail Mary, he would recite the Jewish prayer known as the Shema Yisrael. It was "no big problem."
In the 1940s, over 500 young men came to Providence College under the Army Specialized Training Program. The program served to educate academically talented students for leadership roles in the Army during World War II. In March of 1944, those who were then at PC were ordered to active duty and participated in the D-Day operations. Thirty-seven members of this group were killed in action, and those who survived never returned to complete their studies. Today they are known as the “Lost Class of 1944.” Many of them were Jewish.
Like other Providence College students, some Jewish students excelled in their studies and others did not. In general it was common for students to stay at the College for only one or two years (McCaffrey, 1985). Some transferred to other institutions, while others simply could not continue to pursue college study for a variety of economic and personal reasons.
Maurice Greenstein, class of 1948, was the first Jewish valedictorian of Providence College and he was a Smith Hill native, residing at 42 Pratt St., next door to Abraham and Jacob Smith at 41 Pratt St. Josiah Sacks ’51 from Newport, Rhode Island, graduated second in his class. His classmate Robert Krasner ’51 also graduated in the top 15% of his class. In 1958, Krasner was hired at Providence College joining the Biology faculty. He was one of the first Jewish faculty hired at the College. After fifty years of teaching, Krasner retired in 2008. He passed away in 2014.
At Commencement exercises in this period, degrees were conferred by the Bishop of Providence. As part of the ceremony, students approached the bishop, who was seated, knelt in front of him, and kissed his ring. Several Jewish alumni recalled that they were caught by surprise and found themselves in a quandary while waiting in line. While some followed the protocol of the ceremony, others did not. One alumnus of the 1940s reports that when his name was called, Bishop Francis Keough extended his hand and said, “Mazel tov!” (a Yiddish phrase meaning, “good fortune!”).