Colonial Synagogue is Sentinel for Religious Freedom, Even More so Now

by Karen Rubin

On a hilltop in Newport, Rhode Island’s historic district, Touro Synagogue may well be to Jewish Americans what Plymouth Rock is to the Mayflower descendents.

A portrait of Judah Touro, son of Touro Synagogue's first religious leader; going on to become one of the wealthiest men in America, he became one of America's earliest philanthropists and endowed the synagogue and Newport's Jewish cemetery © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The synagogue, standing as a sentinel for religious freedom since 1763 is that one, tangible place in which colonial forbears – yes, colonial Jews – stood.

Now it has something more – something that the Mayflower descendents experience when they visit Plimoth Plantation and the replica of the ship, Mayflower II. The opening of the Loeb Visitors Center puts faces and biography to hundreds of these colonial ancestors who helped sow the fabric of America, from when the first Jews who settled in Newport in 1658, just 38 years after the Puritans arrived at Plymouth.

The center is a project of George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom in cooperation with the Congregation Jeshuat Israel and Touro Synagogue Foundation, Inc. The Center is named, (and the Institute was founded) by Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr., who is a descendent of Isaac Touro, America’s first rabbi, only then, he was known as Reverend Touro.

The synagogue building, which opened in 1763, contains two items which are cherished with equal passion: a 500-year old Torah Scroll believed to have been saved from the Spanish Inquisition, and a letter from George Washington that codifies this nation’s core belief in the freedom of religion.

The 1790 letter, in which George Washington famously stated that this government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” is a covenant, of sorts, with Jews and others of beliefs different from the majority.

For over two centuries, this small synagogue has stood as a sentinel defending the principle of religious freedom. It has occupied a unique place in American history — not only as a part of the American Jewish experience but also as a symbol of religious freedom for all Americans.

Aaron Lopez, denied citizenship because he was a Jew, went to Massachusetts, instead; his innovation of spermaceti candles and his trade made him one of the wealthiest men in Newport and America © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The building itself– a National Historic Site and an affiliate property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, visited by 30,000 people a year – is an important piece of colonial history and filled with artifacts that go back hundreds of years. These are real, structural things that stand as a symbol and a physical cornerstone of what America is.

But with the opening last year of the Loeb Visitors Center and the Patriots’ Garden, Touro also is a testament to what this nation is not: a Christian nation.

The Loeb Visitors Center puts faces on hundreds of Jews who were part of colonial America and were instrumental in building the fledgling nation. There are biographies for hundreds of these early Jewish Americans The feeling of clicking on a portrait and having a biography pop up is akin to what descendents of the Mayflower feel when they go to Plimoth Plantation to come face to face with their ancestors.

One of the most intriguing is Aaron Lopez, who had fled to Newport from Lisbon in 1752 and induced 40 Portuguese Jewish families to come to Newport, too. Lopez invented a new process to manufacture spermaceti candles from whale oil (they burned longer, brighter, without smoking), manufactured ships, barrels, rum, chocolate, textiles, clothes, shoes, hats, and bottles. Within 14 years, Newport had a fleet of 150 vessels, and Lopez became the wealthiest man in Newport and one of the wealthiest in America.

“Most think of Jews coming to America at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, but they came to Newport in 1754,” docent Linda Nathanson relates. “And the early Jewish settlers in Newport wanted to be Americans.”

They took on American names (Aaron was originally Duarte, and his wife was named Abigail). He sought citizenship, based on the 1740 British Naturalization Act which specifically allowed Jewish settlers to become nationalized citizens of the British Colony. But Rhode Island refused to grant him citizenship, saying it was a “Christian colony.”

“Inasmuch as the said Aaron Lopez hath declared himself by religion a Jew, this Assembly doth not admit himself nor any other of that religion to the full freedom of this Colony. So that the said Aaron Lopez nor any other of said religion is not liable to be chosen into any office in this colony nor allowed to give vote as a free man in choosing others.”

Touro Synagogue docent Linda Nathanson explains some of the artifacts of the synagogue, many dating back to its founding in 1763 © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Lopez’ cousin was granted citizenship – after he converted to Christianity. Aaron had a different strategy: he moved across the border to Massachusetts for a short time, and was granted citizenship there, which made him a citizen in Rhode Island, as well.

All of this is related at one of a series of hologram stations – you feel a little like Harry Potter at the urn of memories in Professor Dumbledore’s office, dropped down into these scenes taking place hundreds of years ago. Here, you see a 3-D image of Aaron talking with Abigail. Other stations depict other aspects of life in colonial Newport, including tackling the thorny subject (only now becoming openly discussed in Newport) about slavery in Newport.

This journey back to Colonial America also confronts Newport’s role in slavery By 1770, of the 9000 people in Newport (Jews were at most 300 people), nearly 3000 were slaves, or one-third the population). But in Newport, slaves could earn money – selling produce at the market on Sunday, for example – and could buy their freedom. By 1780, all were free, and they created the First Free Black Church located very near to the synagogue.

But learning of Aaron Lopez’ denial of citizenship, even in violation of the 1740 law, puts the building of the synagogue, between 1758 and 1763, in a different context, along with the trap door under the bima, and gives a subtext to why Moses Seixas, a leader of the congregation, wrote his letter in 1790 to George W. Washington, asking where the new nation, the new government, stood concerning Jews.

“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable right of free Citizens,” Seixas wrote on behalf of the congregation of Newport, “we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no existence – but generously affording to Al liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship; deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”

By this time, the Jews had already been in the Newport for more than 100 years.

Fleeing the Spanish Inquisition

The history of Touro Synagogue begins much earlier, in 1492, in Spain, after King Ferdinand issued the Alhambra Decree giving Jews just four months to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. Many became conversos and converted, but many, in fact, were “crypto Jews,” practicing in secret.

But most fled – first to Portugal, but the Inquisition followed them there, then to North Africa, then to Europe, and then Amsterdam. “The Dutch didn’t care [if you were Jewish], only that you could contribute to the economy,” our Nathanson, tells us during our half-hour tour. “Jews were good in business, and as the world was being explored, Jews went with them – to Barbados, Jamaica, Curacao (which has the oldest synagogue in Western Hemisphere), and Recife, Brazil.”

The Loeb Visitors Center adds a human dimension that had not existed before when visiting the Touro Synagogue, putting faces to colonial American Jews © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Fifteen years later, in 1654, Portugal took Recife from the Dutch, reigniting fears of persecution. Twenty-three Jews fled trying to get to Amsterdam. But pirates waylaid the ship; they were rescued by a French ship bound for New Amsterdam. Peter Stuyvestant didn’t like Jews and didn’t want them. But the Dutch West Indies Co. (which had some Jews on the board of directors, Nathanson relates), demanded Stuyvesant take the Jews in. They established America’s first Jewish congregation, Shaare Israel.

Then in 1658, 15 Jewish families fleeing Barbados came directly to Newport. Rhode Island was already known for its “livelie experiment” in religious tolerance, and Newport had been settled in 1639 – just 19 years earlier – by a group who, like Roger Williams who had founded Providence, Rhode Island, had been kicked out of Massachusetts Bay Colony for believing in freedom to worship.

In Rhode Island, for the first time, Jews were allowed to buy property. In 1677, they bought land for a cemetery (which became either the oldest or second oldest Jewish cemetery in America).

By 1758, the Jewish community had grown and prospered and wanted to build synagogue and school. There was no rabbi in America, so they sent to Amsterdam. A 19-year old rabbinical student, Isaac Touro, came to be their religious leader.

To build the synagogue, Isaac Touro enlisted Peter Harrison, America’s first professionally trained architect. Harrison had already completed Newport’s Redwood Library (the first circulating Library in America) and King’s Chapel in Boston, and was working on the Christ church in Cambridge.

But Harrison, a Quaker, had his doubts. He had never seen a synagogue and had no idea what a synagogue should look like. Touro talked to him about what a synagogue does, and Harrison was able to integrate elements from the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam.

“The building combines what’s needed for Jewish ritual, but has classic design and Quaker sensibility ,” Nathanson tells us. There is very little adornment, there are huge windows, and a strong sense of symmetry, balance and serenity.

The building took four years to build, 1759-1763, and opened in time for Chanukah, Dec. 2, 1763. The menorah that is there now, is the same Chanukah light that was used to dedicate the synagogue. With the dedication of the synagogue, the congregation changed its name from Nefutse Yisrael (the Scattered of Israel) to Yeshuat Yisrael (the Salvation of Israel).

But 13 years later, the American Revolution broke out; the British blockaded Newport’s harbor and torched just about every building.

Most of the Jews fled the city and few returned.

The Touro Synagogue and the new Patriots Park; colonial Jews craved being Americans and won George Washington's promise that America would honor religious freedom © 2010 Karen Rubin/

But Isaac Touro stayed. He is described as being a Loyalist, but perhaps he was also a pragmatist. He allowed the British to use the building as a military hospital, saving it from destruction. When the British were forced out of Newport in 1779, Touro followed them to New York, but found the New York Jewish congregation had fled to Philadelphia. By 1780, he moved his wife and children to British Jamaica, where he died in 1789. His wife, Reyna, took the children, Judah and Abraham, and moved back to Boston to live with her brother.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Touro Synagogue was one of the few large buildings left standing, and with such few Jews left in the city, was used for the State Legislature and city meetings. It likely was in this building that the Rhode Island Assembly signed the U.S. Constitution.

And it was here, in 1790, that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who coined the phrase “separation of church and state”) visited on a “tour” to promote passage of the Bill of Rights.

During these visits, it was customary for citizens to hand him letters. Moses Seixas, the leader of the synagogue, handed him a letter from the Newport Congregation, asking the fate of the Jewish community under the new government.

Four days later, the congregation received George Washington’s reply affirming that the new nation would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”- language that Seixas had used in his letter.

The Jews of Newport largely scattered in the years after the war.

Issac Touro’s son, Judah, seemed to devote much of his life affirming his patriotism, perhaps to compensate for his father’s act in catering to the British. Judah wound up in New Orleans and though in poor health, enlisted in Andrew Jackson’s army in the War of 1812.

After the war, Judah took a year to recover, then resumed building his business interests in shipping, trade, and real estate. When he died in 1854, he was one of the wealthiest people in America.

Both Judah and his brother Abraham were among America’s first great philanthropists, donating to both Jewish and Christian charities, as well as to the city of Newport.

Touro Synagogue docent Linda Nathanson explains the two most cherished items of the synagogue: a 500-year old Torah (seen in the case) and George Washington's 1790 letter to the congregation © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Upon his death in 1822 Abraham Touro, left a fund of $10,000 for the care and preservation of the synagogue. This is the earliest known bequest for the purpose of preserving an unoccupied historic building.

Judah Touro donated to the Jewish cemetery at Newport, and bought the Old Stone Mill (at that time thought to have been built by Norsemen), giving it to the city. The park surrounding it is still known as Touro Park.

In New Orleans, he used his business profits to buy and endow a cemetery, and to build a synagogue, an almshouse and an infirmary for sailors suffering from yellow fever, as well as a Unitarian church. He was a major contributor to many Christian charities in New Orleans, gave funds to Christians suffering persecution in Jerusalem, as well as to such varied causes as the American Revolutionary War monument at Bunker Hill. He provided the seed money to The Jews’ Hospital in New York City, which opened in 1855 which became Mount Sinai Hospital.

At his death in 1854, his estate provided endowments for nearly all the Jewish congregations in the United States, bequests to hospitals and orphanages in Massachusetts, and the seed of a trust to support almshouses in Jerusalem.

Judah Touro also bequeathed $10, 000 to the state of Rhode Island as a trust fund for the care and preservation of the Touro Synagogue.

Rebirth of the Congregation

Touro Synagogue languished for the lack of a congregation. But in the late 1800s, pograms in Eastern Europe, Russia and Poland sparked a new wave of Jews to Newport. Now, it was the Ashkenase Jews coming for religious freedom.

In 1883, Touro Synagogue was reopened and re-dedicated, and has been used steadily since. “This is not a museum, but a living, working synagogue,” Nathanson says.

In 1946 (likely as a reaction to the Holocaust),Touro Synagogue was made a National Historic Site and part of the National Park System by an Act of Congress. In 2001, The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Touro Synagogue to become a part of its collection of historic sites. The synagogue was closed in 2005 for a major restoration, and reopened Jan. 1, 2006, the last day of Hanukkah.

Probably, throughout Newport’s history, there has been at most 300 Jewish families; today’s congregation numbers about 100 to 125 families, though visitors are invited to worship (in this building and in another across the street), and people can rent the synagogue for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

The congregation is Orthodox – women sit upstairs – yet women have been in the temple leadership . It remains Sephardic in its practice, even though almost all of the congregants are Ashkenase.

It looks almost exactly as it did in the 1760s, not just in its physical structure, but it is striking how many of the artifacts date from colonial times – the woodwork, brass, ark light, a clock from 1765.

Loeb Visitors Center offers interactive videos - holograms - to explain colonial Newport and colonial Jews' role © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The building is angled to street in order to face east – which must have bothered Harrison’s sense of balance and symmetry. The bima is in the center of the room, in the Sephardic tradition.

Most precious is the Torah, a gift in 1763 from the Great Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. At the time, the deer-skin Torah scroll was already over 200 years old and was believed to have been saved from the Spanish Inquisition.

Three Presidents of the United States have sat in the President’s pew: John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and George Washington.

It is understandable why Moses Seixas would have raised his concern as to behalf of the Jewish community asking ‘Will Jews continue to have religious freedom?’ It was a new government, and Jewish history had offered too many examples of what happens to Jews after political change.

Aaron Lopez had the evidence first hand, when he was denied naturalization because he was a Jew, even though existing law, of 1740, had expressly stated Jews were entitled to citizenship.

Even though they had been more than 100 years in America, Jewish history had shown that Jews were first victims of political change.

George Washington wrote back: “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.”

“We take that principle for granted now,” Nathanson tells us, “But at the time, no other country in world had religious freedom written into its laws.

“We are historic site, not just because of a beautiful building, but letter written to Touro Synagogue is symbol of religious freedom for all.”

But perhaps that is why there is the secret trap door under the bima – a reminder, perhaps, or a precaution.

The classic lines of the Touro Synagogue, designed by Peter Harrison, America's first professionally trained architect and Patriots Park © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Loeb Visitors Center

Visiting the building itself is a profound experience; seeing the artifacts and sitting in the pews.

But the newly opened Loeb Visitors Center adds a completely new, biographical dimension to the building as a historic site.

Here, there are not exactly costumed re-enactors as they have at Plimoth, but portraits of early American Jews from 1700 to 1865 – some by such famous painters as Gilbert Stuart, who painted George Washington’s famous portrait, and painted Aaron Lopez (in 1773).

You learn, for example, about Judah Philip Bergman, the first Jew to be elected to the U.S. Senate (a Whig, he served 1853-1861).

I easily could have spent more than an hour there.

The John C. Loeb, Jr. Visitors Center is operated by the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom ( Both were established by Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr., who is descended from the Touro family. Ambassador Loeb also established the Patriots Park which connects the visitor center with the synagogue, so that now there is this charming campus.

The Institute gives voice to the issue of religious freedom, in a way that the silent structure could not. The Institute gives every Rhode Island high school senior a copy of Washington’s letter and sponsors an essay contest, “What Religious Freedom Means” – the winners are presented a prize from Rhode Island’s Governor and Ambassador Loeb, and the institute is making the contest national.

Touro Synagogue hosts an annual reading of the George Washington letter – this year’s is to be held Sunday, August 22, 2010.

From July-early September, the Visitor Center is open Sunday-Wednesday and Friday, 9:30 am-4:30 p.m., Thursdays until 7 p.m.; Synagogue tours are offered 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (the last tour starts at 3:30 p.m), and until 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays (last tour at 6 p.m.). The tour schedule may vary due to Jewish holidays, ceremonial occasions and special events; additional tours may be scheduled for Holiday weeks and cruise ship dockings. Adults/$12, Seniors/$10, Students/Military/$8, child under 12 free.

For further information, contact the Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue, or Touro Synagogue, 895 Touro Street, Newport RI 02840, 401-847-4794, To arrange for a wedding or bar mitzvah call 401-847-4794 x 10, or email:

Wednesday, 01 September, 2010

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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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