Friday, December 28, 2007

1762: dedication of Touro Synagogue

Newport's Touro Synagogue, dedicated in 1762, is the oldest synagogue (Jewish house of worship) in the United States and the only one that survives from the colonial era.

It was designed by noted architect Peter Harrison, and is considered his best work. The interior has balconies supported by twelve Ionic columns, which signify the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. Each column is carved from a single tree. Located at 85 Touro Street, the building is oriented to face towards Jerusalem.

The Touro Synagogue was built for the Jeshuat Israel congregation, and named to honor Isaac Touro, its cantor (prayer leader).

The congregation was founded in 1658 by descendants of Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal and who were themselves seeking a haven from religious persecution in the Caribbean. They came to the the Colony of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations because of the assurance of freedom of religion and liberty of conscience promised by Roger Williams to all who came within its borders

When the British captured Newport in 1776 and shut down the maritime trades, most Jews left. The synagogue became a hospital for British troops until the French liberated the city. In 1781, George Washington met Generals Lafayette and Rochembeau in Newport to plan the final battles of the Revolution. It was on that visit, that General Washington attended a town meeting in the synagogue.

In 1790, members of the synagogue wrote a letter to President Washington, expressing their good wishes, and asking his views on their continued peaceful existence in Newport.

Washington replied in a letter that, "happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."

With this statement, Washington set the standard for religious freedom and civil liberties in America.

The city of Newport faded in importance shortly after American indepence when the capital of Rhode Island moved to Providence, which rapidly surpassed Newport as a seaport. The Jewish community, too small to maintain a synagogue, gave the keys and deed to the building to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, which still formally owns the Touro synagogue. Jewish life in Newport revived with the late nineteenth century immigration of eastern European Jews to the Unites States.

Judah Touro, son of the synagogue's eighteenth century cantor, Isaac Touro, made a fortune as a merchant in New Orleans and left $10,000 in his will for the upkeep of the Jewish cemetery and synagogue in Newport.

In 1946, the Touro Synagogue was designated a National Historic Site. Today, it continues to serve an active congregation.

CLICK for the Touro Synagogue Foundation's website. (info from National Park Service & Wikipedia)

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