The story of the Touro Synagogue reveals the complexity and beauty of Jewish history, and the ability of the Jewish people to adapt in order to survive, a couple of themes that I have highlighted on several occasions in this blog. The story of its community spans the Western Hemisphere, dating back to the Middle Ages, and played a significant role in the independence of the United States.
The Touro Synagogue
The Touro Synagogue is located in of Newport, Rhode Island on the East Coast of the U.S., a 2-hour drive from Boston, Massachusetts. The synagogue was dedicated in 1763 and as such is considered to be the oldest synagogue in the United States. The synagogue is considered one of the ten most architecturally distinguished buildings of 18th century America and the most historically significant Jewish building in the United States.The synagogue was designated a National Historic Site in 1946. It still serves an active congregation and each year greets over 30,000 visitors who come to see the magnificent interior and hear its remarkable story.
Services at Touro Synagogue are orthodox and follow the Nusach Sefard liturgy. At its dedication in December 1763, the Touro Synagogue was the center of Jewish life in Newport. It anchored the community during the height of
Newport’s prosperity and stood through the town’s near destruction in the Revolutionary War. As it approaches its 250th anniversary, the Synagogue remains a vital part of the Jewish community in Newport and serves as the home for Congregation Jeshuat Israel, the spiritual descendants of the congregation that built it.
Origin of the Congregation
In 1658, the small but growing colony of Newport, Rhode Island received its first Jewish residents. Fifteen families came from Barbados, seeking the greater religious tolerance that Rhode Island offered. These families were descendants of ‘Marranos’ who fled the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal that had migrated from Amsterdam and London to Brazil and then the islands of Suriname, Barbados, Curaçao and Jamaica. By 1677, the community realized the need to acquire land for a Jewish cemetery. Two of the original immigrants, , purchased the lot at the corner of what is now Kay and Touro Streets for this purpose.
Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Portuguese Jews (Sephardim) enjoyed unparalleled freedom, wealth and power. They occupied key positions in government, academia, and commerce, and especially the professions of medicine, science and law. In 1496, King Manuel of Portugal tried to keep his most learned, creative and productive subjects, not to mention his personal physician, tailor, royal mathematician, royal astronomer, his government financiers, etc. He encouraged “his” Jews to convert to Christianity. He tried to persuade and cajole them, even bringing converted rabbis from Spain to preach to them. The New Christian secret Jews became known as Marranos, from the Portuguese “marrar”, i.e. forced, or from the Aramaic-Hebrew Mar Anus, a forced one. The philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Frances Sanches, Uriel Acosta, Montaigne, and David Ricardo were all Marrano descendants. Indigenous Marranos did survive nearly 300 years following the Inquisition. In 1920, Samuel Schwarz, a Polish engineer working in Portugal, encountered a community of Marranos in the interior of Portugal (Belmonte) who had managed to preserve some of the secret rituals, including prayers, of their ancestors.
George Washington gets in the act…
Marranos who came to the American colonies were free to profess their Judaism. Aaron Lopez, the wealthiest merchant of the thirteen colonies was born Duarte Lopez in Lisbon. He provided money and ships to George Washington during the War of Independence.
The United States won and became independent and politically free, but would there also be religious freedom? On 17 Aug 1790, Moses Seixas of the Touro Congregation wrote to George Washington, asking him for assurance in the new political climate. President Washington replied, promising that the United States would never support religious bigotry or persecution:
“…The Citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”
And then he went further:
“…while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.“
Washington’s commitment has remained a cornerstone of American values. His letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” written a year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, is on display at the Touro synagogue.
The Letter From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 21 Aug 1790.