Jews could be admitted from the very beginning according to the charter which stated that “Youths of all Religious Denominations shall and may be freely admitted to the Equal Advantages Emoluments & Honors of the College or University and shall Receive a like fair generous & equal Treatment.” The subject came up in a letter from Moses Lindo, a Jewish merchant in Charleston, South Carolina, who had subscribed twenty pounds and asked for confirmation that the college would accept Jews. The Corporation, to clear up any doubt of the intention of the charter, voted on September 6, 1770, “That the Children of Jews may be admitted into this Institution and intirely (sic) enjoy the freedom of their own Religion, without any Constraint or Imposition whatever.” The Laws of 1783 prescribed that a student might not “deny the being of a God, the Existence of Virtue and Vice; or that the Books of the old and new Testament are of divine authority,” adding “Young gentlemen of the Hebrew nation are to be excepted from this Law, in so far as it relates to the New Testament and its authenticity.”
Nevertheless, no Jewish student seems to have entered or even applied for over a century, when Israel Strauss of the class of 1894 became Brown’s first known Jewish student. In his first year, Strauss recalled, “I conceived the idea that being a Jew, it was not necessary for me to attend chapel.” He felt that he could use the extra time in the morning, as he was commuting from Pawtucket. President Andrews, however, felt that he could excuse him only if he (or his father, a leader in the Jewish community in Rhode Island) had conscientious scruples against attending chapel. As he did not, he continued to attend. President Andrews also gave him advice about his career, pointing out the possibility of his meeting prejudice in the academic world. In his reminiscences of Andrews written in 1935, Strauss wrote:
“I entered Brown with the distinct idea of preparing myself for a career in medicine. However I became very much interested in the Biological Department under Professor Bumpus. In my senior year I received a fellowship in biology from the University of Chicago. I could not make up my mind whether to take it or to continue my studying for the medical profession. I went to ‘Benny’ and asked his advice. He told me ‘Your career in biology will necessitate teaching in universities. Many of the universities are denominational. You, being a Jew, will be handicapped in obtaining a position. If I were you I would study medicine, obtain the degree, and if after that you still felt inclined to became a biologist, you might undertake it. You would have the degree of doctor of medicine to fall back upon if you found it necessary.’ This advice led to my entering the profession of medicine and remaining in it. I have always remembered it because it struck me then, and I still think it holds good today as being extremely sound and wise advice.”
Graduating at the same time as Strauss was Jacob Hayman, who came from Russia and entered Brown as a senior in 1893 after first studying at the University of Vermont. He graduated with a Civil Engineer degree and was able, with the intercession of President Andrews, to continue his studies at Columbia. The Jewish enrollment increased after the turn of the century. Many of the Jewish students came from the Providence area. Commuting every day and spending little time on the campus except for classes, they were called “carpet baggers” for the satchels they brought with them, and were not readily received into the social life of the college, although they excelled academically. Barred from the existing fraternities, they began to form their own societies. The first of these, the Menorah Society, was dedicated on January 6, 1915 in the Brown Union. The society originated at Harvard in 1906 with sixteen members. The purpose of the society was the study of Jewish culture, and membership was open to all members of the universities. When Brown’s society was started, there were societies in 35 colleges with a membership of 2,500. The Women’s College had a Menorah Society in 1919. In November 1927 a conference of Eastern and Northeastern Menorah Societies was held at Brown. The Menorah Society disappeared about 1932.
In 1916 fifteen students formed a chapter of Phi Epsilon Pi, which was allowed to exist without being recognized as a fraternity and was disbanded in 1919. About 1918 several students formed a small social group which they called the B.G.S. Brown students could also join a local organization of Jewish young men, called “The Lambs.” This club, which met at Temple Beth-El, had in 1921 a membership of 75, of whom twenty were Brown students. During the academic year 1918-19 there was established a fraternity named Alpha Sigma Omicron, which met weekly and held initiations and dances, but was not recognized by, nor in fact known to the University administration. During the secret existence of Alpha Sigma Omicron on campus, an annual request for permission to have a fraternity for Jewish students was presented to the administration and denied. On January 1, 1923, at a banquet at the Town House in New York City, a group of Jewish alumni of Brown living in Boston, Providence, and New York formed a fraternal organization, also Alpha Sigma Omicron, the purpose of which was to maintain the interest of its members in the activities of the University and to help further its interests. This new alumni organization was not a secret, and its beginning was duly noted in the Brown Alumni Monthly. In 1928 a movement to establish a Jewish fraternity was noted in Dean Otis E. Randall’s report for that year, “we do not want at Brown any fraternity organized on the basis of race or religion. ... Just at this time we are exercising the greatest care in the selection of our students. We must have a free hand in carrying out the liberal policies of the University, and therefore must not be handicapped by the dominating influence of a large group of men representing any race, sect, or religion.”
During the Christmas vacation in 1928 nine students went to New York, without informing the administration, and were secretly initiated into the national fraternity Pi Lambda Phi, a non-sectarian fraternity with primarily Jewish members, at the New York University chapter house.
When news of the new fraternity chapter reached Dean Randall, he informed the students that they could not be members of the fraternity and members of Brown University at the same time. The new members of Pi Lambda Phi accordingly dissolved their local chapter and retained their membership in the national fraternity. The New York Times, reporting on the incident on April 30, 1929, noted, “The resignations are said to have followed a conference held recently between officials of the University and counsel for the Jewish Fraternity, including Arthur Garfield Hays of New York, at which the university was threatened with prosecution if it persisted in its opposition to the formation of a Jewish Fraternity at Brown.” The next day the Times followed up with a statement by the national headquarters of Pi Lambda Phi that the incident was considered closed. In May the Brown Corporation adopted new resolutions concerning the formation of student organizations, which stated, “it is not the policy of the University to forbid the formation of a group, having neither racial nor sectarian restrictions, solely on the ground that the membership of such a group is of one race or faith,” and Pi Lambda Phi was allowed its chapter at Brown. A application for a charter for the Lambda Psi Club, a social club to which Jewish students would be admitted, submitted on March 1, 1929, was deferred while the matter of Pi Lambda Phi was under consideration. About a week later the Tower Club, a similar organization, was granted a charter. The Lambda Psi Club’s constitution, which declared the organization to be non-sectarian, was thought to be too similar to that of a fraternity. The Lambda Psi Club was, however, allowed to function as an unofficial club.
A new Tower Club was formed in 1937 by 25 Jewish students who met in Faunce House for the purpose of forming a new fraternal organization. The striking of the clock in Carrie Tower at eight o’clock during their meeting suggested the name for the club (which had an unofficial motto, “In Touro Speramus”). Apparently unknown to the members was the fact that an earlier organization of the same name had already briefly existed. The Club perpetuated itself in the manner of a fraternity by invitation of new members, and although the founding members were Jewish, welcomed members regardless of religious affiliation. The club occupied rooms on Thayer Street, and was noted for its highly successful social activities and the high academic record of its members. It was dissolved in 1969.
The Hillel Foundation of Brown University was established in 1947 after a conference between Dr. Abram L. Sachar, National Hillel Director, and the administration of the University. Dr. Sachar asked Rabbi Nathan N. Rosen, who had recently returned from service as a chaplain in the Pacific, to be the first director of the Brown chapter, the 178th chapter of the organization which had been started by Rabbi Benjamin Frankl at the college at Champaign-Urbana, Illinois to provide Jewish students with a knowledge of their heritage. The first president of the Brown chapter was Melvin Feldman 1945. Study groups, religious activities and social functions became part of the Hillel program. A newsletter, Hillel on the Hill, began publication in October 1947. The first issue of a yearbook, The Hillel Scroll, was published in 1953.
In October 1963 the Samuel Rapaporte Jr. Hillel House was opened at 80 Brown Street and named for a Providence benefactor. It occupies the former Froebel Hall at 112 Angell Street. The chalet-style building, designed by Stone and Carpenter and built in 1878, was first used by Mrs. Caroline Alden, who opened a school for training kindergarten teachers in the Froebel method.
In 1971, when Jewish students accounted for twenty-five per cent of the enrollment, Brown appointed the first university-sponsored Jewish chaplain in the Ivy League. The appointment of Richard A. Marker as associate chaplain of the University and associate Hillel director was financed by Brown, National Hillel, and the Jewish Federation in Providence. About 1973 a Jewish women’s prayer group was formed at Brown and conducted a women’s service at Hillel every Saturday. The Jewish Student Union of Hillel is the present umbrella organization for Jewish groups on campus.