It’s a story that’s familiar to every student of American history. In 1620, the Pilgrims fled England aboard the Mayflower and founded the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, where they could freely practice their religion. A little known, but equally significant, historical event took place just a few years later in 1658, when another group seeking a haven from religious persecution sailed into Newport Harbor in Rhode Island and founded Congregation Jeshuat Israel.
The history of the Jewish settlement of America actually begins in 1492 with the Edict of Expulsion issued by that infamous duo, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who demanded that Jews choose conversion or exile. So, once again, Jewish citizens, who had contributed to the social, economic and cultural life of a nation, were forced to flee from a country that had been their home for centuries.
But Spain’s loss was the world’s gain. Thousands sought safety in the Netherlands, the Caribbean Islands, and South America. These locales provided temporary havens, but as the brutal arm of Spain began to extend across the globe, Jews once again felt threatened.
Encouraged by Governor Roger Williams’s open door policy, a group of 15 Sephardic families from the West Indies settled in Rhode Island. Over the next 100 years the Jewish population of Newport flourished, taking advantage of the social and economic opportunities available. Isaac Touro, originally from Holland via Jamaica, became Jeshuat Israel’s first spiritual leader and the congregation purchased land and hired Peter Harrison, the preeminent architect of the colonial era, to design their synagogue.
Dedicated in 1763, the oldest standing synagogue building in the United States is not only considered a prime example of Georgian architecture but also reflects the Sephardic influence, reminiscent of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogues in Amsterdam and London.
When George Washington became president of the United States he assured the Jewish citizens of his commitment to the community in his famous 1790 letter, “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” and bestowed upon them this blessing, “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
The annual reading of the Washington letter has become a much anticipated summer weekend event, with the honor given to prominent American Jews. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presided over the 57th reading, which also coincided with the celebration of 350 years of Jewish life in America, which we attended.
The synagogue was designated a national historic site and part of the National Park System by an act of Congress in 1946. And in 2001 The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Touro as the first religious structure to become part of its collection of historic sites.
Newport’s spectacular mansions, once the homes of the rich and famous, today are museums, the destination of throngs of tourists who marvel at the conspicuous consumption of a bygone era. Standing modestly on the top of a hill, just a short distance away, Touro Synagogue not only predates the ornate mansions but continues to serve as the spiritual home of the Jewish community of Newport.
Today, the congregation consists of approximately 140 member families whose bar and bat mitzvah and wedding celebrations are a testament to the vitality of the community. Shabbat services are held on Friday evening and Saturday morning under the direction of Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz. Touro Synagogue uses the Orthodox Sephardic liturgy with separate seating for men and women.
We attended Shabbat services during the Washington letter weekend celebration and as I peered down at the 12 pillars supporting the women’s gallery, with each column carved from a single tree representing the 12 tribes, I felt grateful to our colonial ancestors for providing the Jews of America with such a rich legacy.
A tour of the Touro Synagogue is a memorable learning experience for children, as well as adults. Well-informed guides provide illuminating accounts of the history of the synagogue, the Jewish community and colonial America. The very first time our family visited Newport, my oldest son Joshua was attending elementary school and was visibly excited to sit in the very same chair once occupied by George Washington.
Tours are given May through October, Sunday through Friday, except on Jewish holidays. For additional information regarding tours call 401-847-4794 x10, or visit tourosynagogue.org.
Helen Zegerman Schwimmer is the author of the acclaimed anthology, “Like The Stars of The Heavens,” available from amazon.com. To learn more please visit helenschwimmer.com.