May 19, 2024
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A Visit to Newport’s Touro Synagogue

Newport, Rhode Island is home to the oldest Orthodox synagogue in the United States. In 1946 Touro Synagogue was named a national historic landmark, and it is still thought to be one of the 10 most architecturally significant buildings from 18th-century America. During a trip to Newport, I had the opportunity to visit the shul and take a guided tour. I was amazed to learn about the history of one of our country’s first group of Orthodox Jews, and was grateful for the wealth of information provided to me by my tour guide and other knowledgeable members and leaders of the Touro Synagogue Foundation.

The congregation was founded in 1658, more than 360 years ago, and is still active today. Its founding congregants were Sephardi Jews originally escaping persecution in Portugal and Spain. But how did they end up in Rhode Island? From Portugal and Spain, they fled to the more religiously tolerant Amsterdam, and from there they traveled with explorers to the Caribbean Islands, specifically Barbados. Jewish people from that area looking to settle in the U.S. chose Rhode Island because it was known for its religious tolerance.

Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, had been kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay colony because of his more progressive beliefs regarding religious freedom, which was ironic considering that the colonists at the time wanted to rid themselves of British rule in order to gain their own religious and political freedom. While the Jews in Rhode Island did have much religious freedom, they were still unable to become citizens or partake in government until after the Revolutionary War.

When the first Jewish settlers arrived, which was a total of 15 families, they held services in people’s homes. The shul itself wasn’t built until about 100 years later, between the years of 1759 and 1763 when the community was finally large enough. Even though the shul had not been built yet, the community had recognized and accepted its permanence in the colony in 1677 with the purchase of property for a Jewish burial ground, which is within walking distance of the shul.

The shul was built by gentile architect Peter Harrison, who to the shul’s knowledge never charged for his services. He built the shul according to the classical architecture that was popular at the time. The building also rests at an angle on the top of a hill in order for the ark to face directly east. Inside, six pillars line each side of the building to represent the 12 tribes of Jacob. There are also candlelight fixtures that are original to the building, which were brought in around 1763.

Twenty years ago, during its last preservation renovation, the shul was painted a colonial blue, which was a common color during colonial times. It took 19 layers of blue paint to achieve the look. The shul has a presidential pew, a characteristic of some Sephardi shuls, that is located to the left of the bima, where the president or other distinguished guests sit. There is a separate entrance for women, who sit on balcony seats.

Perhaps the most outstanding of artifacts is the 500-plus year old Torah that sits on display behind a glass case by the ark. The scroll was one of few to survive the Inquisition, and the journey to Amsterdam. It was later given to the shul as a gift from the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam.

With the opening of a shul came a need for a community leader. Isaac Touro came over from Amsterdam when he was 19 or 20 years old. He was still a rabbinical student but possessed the qualities of the religious leader the community needed. The community referred to him as Reverend Isaac Touro. The shul, which wasn’t named after the Touros until the 1800s, was named Congregation Jeshuat Israel, and is still referred to as such. Isaac Touro and his sons, Judah and Abraham, were known as generous philanthropists. Their legacy includes a fence around the wall around the cemetery, donation of land to Newport, which is now known as Touro Park, and donations to the maintenance of the shul and bequests to charities in the U.S. and abroad.

The shul finally opened on December 2, 1763, the first night of Chanukah. The event was a memorable one for Newport, and the opening was written up in the local paper. The shul was home to active services and dedicated congregants during that time.

The Revolutionary War soon kicked into gear, and many members fled to neighboring colonies. Isaac Touro stayed, however, and offered up the shul as a hospital for the British army, which ultimately saved it from destruction.

Unfortunately, the effects of the war left the shul bereft of many (but not all) congregants, and the shul no longer held services every day, but still held High Holiday services and funeral services as needed. During that time, many Jews fled to New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) to join the Jewish congregation at Shearith Israel, which had been established by Sephardi Jews in 1654. Shearith Israel took care of many documents and objects belonging to the Newport congregation during that time.

Touro Synagogue later reopened with the influx of Eastern European Jews in the 1880s, and it became a primarily Ashkenazi shul.

Since their initial association, the two congregations have been engaged in a battle over the ownership of artifacts and of the Touro Synagogue itself. The ownership of one such artifact under dispute included $7.4 million silver finial bells that date back to the 1700s. Jeshuat Israel wanted to sell the finial bells, but Shearith Israel objected and sued, asking to become owners of Touro Synagogue and its artifacts. In 2017, a Boston appeals court ruled in favor of Shearith Israel. The case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to involve itself. Earlier this year, the Providence Journal reported that Shearith Israel has filed a motion to evict Touro Synagogue’s congregants from the shul.

A tour of the shul would be incomplete without the mention of the shul’s famous letter from the nation’s first president, copies of which are available free for visitors. In 1790, George Washington came to visit Newport as a way of thanking the colony for signing the Constitution. Rhode Island had refused to sign until it received confirmation via the Bill of Rights that the country would establish freedom of speech and religion, and the separation of church and state. Because of the state’s concern for its and the country’s personal freedoms, it was the 13th colony to sign.

Moses Mendes Seixas, the president of the shul at the time, penned a letter to Washington on behalf of the congregation. In his letter, he raised his concerns about maintaining religious freedom in the U.S. for the safety of the Jewish people. Washington, who was touched by the letter, responded three days later reassuring the community that it had inherent rights as Americans to choose and practice its own religion and that it would be protected under law to do so.

One particularly poignant excerpt from Washington’s letter reads, “… everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Today, Jewish people in Newport make up about 1% of the population. Many congregants now live in Florida, but remain members of the shul. There are about 125 members today and a full-time rabbi. There are also Friday night and Shabbat morning services, and in the summer there are sometimes enough people to hold weekday minyanim as well.

Visiting the Touro Synagogue was the highlight of my trip to Rhode Island, and I was reminded of how brave and resilient the Jewish people have been in history, especially during their escape from persecution and search for religious freedom for themselves and future generations. I was also heartened to learn of the roles that many newly minted American leaders played in ensuring that the Jewish people had a safe place to worship in comfort during the country’s early days. It is truly a tribute to them and to the state of Rhode Island that the community was able to thrive, and I highly recommend a visit there to learn more about Touro Synagogue and what life was like for early Jewish settlers in a young colony eager to earn and establish the religious rights we now enjoy so freely.

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