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The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island

Once the first Jewish community had been established in New Amsterdam, other Jews began to immigrate. The next center of Jewish life to develop was in Newport, Rhode Island. Jews from Holland, Spain and Portugal – many of whom had lived as crypto-Jews for several generations – as well as some Ashkenazim, started to settle in Newport in 1658. Already by 1712 the center of the Newport Jewish community was called Jew Street. The Newport Jewish community inaugurated the Touro synagogue in 1763.

The Newport Touro synagogue was never officially named “Touro” – the community called itself Yeshuat Yisrael. By the mid-19th century, however, the Newport synagogue was recognized, though never formally, as the Touro Synagogue. It received this informal title in honor of one of Newport’s founding Jewish families – that of Isaac Touro, which had come from Amsterdam by way of the West Indies. Touro’s family was originally from Spain and the family name had originally been de Toro.

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The Touro synagogue was built with a trap door under the bimah. The hiding place was adapted from the Marrano tradition of ensuring that one existed wherever Jews might have needed to hide from soldiers of the Inquisition. During the 19th century it served as a hiding site for runaway slaves who were escaping north via the Underground Railroad. The Hebrew Cemetery on Jew Street – today’s Bellevue Avenue – has origins dating back to 1677, making it the oldest Jewish cemetery in America.

Within a few years other Jews began to arrive in America. Charleston, South Carolina, was a popular destination for these Sephardic Jews thanks to the religious tolerance established there by the South Carolina charter. This charter, drawn up by the English philosopher John Locke, granted liberty of conscience to all residents. The charter specifically mentioned Jews in its expression of freedom of religion (along with heathens and dissenters).

The first Jews in Charleston were of Portuguese origin and their synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, was inaugurated in 1749 as an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue. By the early 1800s, however, a large percentage of Jewish Charleston residents were Ashkenazic immigrants from Germany and in 1828 the synagogue became affiliated with the Reform movement.

Through most of the 18th century American synagogues conducted and recorded their business in Portuguese, even as their daily language was English. When the German immigration to the United States began in the 19th century, Ashkenazi traditions and culture began to dominate the American Jewish landscape. Ashkenazi dominance of America’s Jewish community solidified when the mass immigration of Eastern European Jewish immigrants began in the late 19th century.

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Early American Jewry’s liturgies and rituals were conducted in the western Sephardi tradition that developed in late 16th and early 17th century Amsterdam. While many of the members of the first American Jewish communities were of Spanish and Portuguese origins, their worship was influenced by the style of the Dutch Sephardi Jews. Scholarly Sephardi cantors succeeded in passing their repertoire down from generation to generation, with a measure of distinction that has become identified with the American brand of western Sephardi tradition.

Until the middle of the 18th century the prayer books used by American Jewish synagogues were brought from Amsterdam. During Oliver Cromwell’s reign England began to allow Jews to return to the country. By the 18th century American Jews were importing Sephardi prayer books from London for use in America’s synagogues . These English prayer books included both Hebrew and English, a combination that grew increasingly popular as English became the main language of American Jews.

Colonial synagogues were Orthodox. Community members preferred the unmodified traditional service. Since American Jews of Colonial times didn’t establish Talmudic academies or Jewish schools or even try to bring in rabbis who could help guide the religious life of the community (as did the Jews of the Caribbean), their religious life centered around their synagogues. American Jews came to rely on the synagogues to guide them in adhering to the Sephardi liturgical traditions. Many of these Jews may not have been observant in the “Orthodox” sense but they saw their synagogue chants and music as the primary vehicle that defined their internal Jewish identity.

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The early Sephardic synagogues had choirs whose primary function involved leading the congregation in singing and in strophic and responsorial prayers. For congregants in these synagogues the choir would provide a model that they could follow through the service.

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