|The interior of the Touro Synagogue in Newport. The Arc of the Torah on the east wall.
In the midst of Chanukah it is perhaps fitting to remember what the reverent Sephardic Jews of ever tolerant Newport, Rhode Island did on this date. On December 2, 1763 it was the Third Night of the Festival of Light. There must have been some in the congregation who reflected upon the connection between the ancient miracle in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem and the beautiful new Synagogue they dedicated that day after nearly a century of worshiping in homes. That building, the Touro Synagogue, is the oldest synagogue building still standing in the United States, the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue building in North America, and the only surviving synagogue building in the U.S. dating to the colonial era.
More than 100 years earlier in1658 fifteen Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin arrived in Newport, a thriving little port city in Roger Williams’ tiny beacon of religious tolerance. Driven from ancestral lands by the Inquisition and the expulsion decrees of Isabella and Ferdinand in Spain and then persecution in Portugal, many had escaped to the relative safety of Holland and then on to the Dutch colony on Curaçao of the coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean. Rhode Island was just the latest possible refuge for these truly wandering Jews.
The Jeshuat Israel Congregation worshiped privately in members’ homes for nearly a century as the Jews of Newport flourished. The community purchased and dedicated the Jewish Cemetery at Newport in 1677.
More immigrants arrived, including by the 18th century a handful of Dutch Ashkenazi. But the Congregation maintained its Sephardic customs and identities.
Some members, notably the Lopez family rose to great wealth. By 1760 Aaron Lopez, who had cornered the market on whale oil, manufactured spermaceti candles, ships, barrels, rum, and chocolate; had interests in textiles, shoes, hats, and bottles; and was very profitably engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. Ezra Stiles, the local Congregational minister and future president of Yale College, said that the “extent of [Lopez’s] commerce probably [was] surpassed by no merchant in America.”
Despite the general toleration of Jews in Rhode Island, they were still denied full citizenship rights. Lopez sued unsuccessfully for naturalization in 1761-62. Although he secured the support of the lower house of the General Assembly, the upper house ruled that it was for the courts to decide. The Supreme Court finally ruled that only Christians were eligible for citizenship. Undeterred, Lopez temporarily moved to Massachusetts, where he was naturalized and believed to the first Jew to gain citizenship in that Colony.
Meanwhile Lopez and other prosperous members set about to secure the future of their Congregation. In 1759 they secured the services of Dutch born Isaac Touro as hazzen—Ladino, the common language of Sephardic Jews, for canter—and eventually rabbi. With the money from Lopez and others, Touro began building a Synagogue.
Touro commissioned Peter Harrison, the first professionally trained architect in the American colonies, to design the building. The exterior was simple, but elegant—a two story white building with tall, arched windows arranged symmetrically around an entrance sheltered by a Greek pediment. It was constructed to face east toward Jerusalem on Touro Street.
It was the interior that was truly dazzling. Twelve Ionic columns, each hand carved from a single tree truck and representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel support a gallery on three sides of the worship space. An elegant Arc on the east wall shelters the Torah scrolls and above it is a mural painted by noted local artist Benjamin Howland representing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew.
Construction of the Synagogue took three years. Aaron Lopez was given the honor of laying the cornerstone.
The American Revolution severely divided and disrupted the Congregation. Most members, including Lopez, were ardent Patriots and Whigs. But Touro was a Tory. When the British occupied the town in 1776, most of the Patriots fled, but Touro remained. The British departed in 1779 and the town became the headquarters for Comte de Rochambeau’s French army in 1780. Touro fled with the British, Lopez and other Whigs returned. Lopez opened his grand home to Jewish refugees and at one point was sheltering almost 100.
George Washington spent much time in Newport collaborating and making plans with the French. He became familiar with the Jewish congregation at that time. It was from Newport that the final march to Yorktown to trap Cornwallis’s army was launched.
The war was an economic disaster for the city. Trade was completely disrupted. The population fell by half. Lopez lost most of his fortune, as did many others. He shifted most of his business activities to Massachusetts but never recovered. Many families drifted away. No new ones arrived to take their place. Young people often assimilated, marrying into local Christian families. To this day many old Newport families have Jews in their ancestry, usually well hidden and not acknowledged.
In 1782 Lopez was killed on a journey back to Newport with his family when his carriage overturned in a pond. He was buried in the Jewish Cemetery
The diminished congregation struggled on. Moses Seixas, the warden of the congregation wrote President George Washington in 1790 expressing support and admiration for his administration. Washington warmly responded in a letter that was both his clearest statement on religious liberty, and is regarded by Jews as the touchstone document of their acceptance in American society:
...the Government of the United States...gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance...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 figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
—Letter of George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island
Today, that letter is read annually at the Synagogue and is the occasion annual lectures by leading scholars and public figures like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Brown University President Ruth Simmons.
But when the letter was written, the congregation was in deep trouble. So was Newport. Then things got worse with Thomas Jefferson embargo of trade with the warring British and French. The economy essentially collapsed. The whaling trade had already mostly departed to Massachusetts ports like Salem and New Bedford.
The congregation could no longer support its self. With the faint hope that it may someday be revived, they sent the deed to the building to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York which still formally owns the Touro Synagogue. The keys were entrusted to the Gould’s, a local Quaker family for safe keeping.
In the 1850’s Newport’s fortunes began to revive as it became a summer resort for the American economic elite. The building was opened for occasional use by summer visitors.
In 1883 wealthy Jews summering in Newport, the tiny remnant of the original population, and a wave of impoverished immigrants from Europe caused the Synagogue to reopen for regular worship. The Jewish population dwindled again in the 20th Century, but a small congregation continues to worship there.
Nearing the building’s 200 anniversary on October 16, 1966 the Touro Synagogue was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
But back when the building was closed and the cemetery virtually abandoned in the mid-19th Century a poet mused.
The Jewish Cemetery at Newport
How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!
The trees are white with dust, that o'er their sleep
Wave their broad curtains in the southwind’s breath,
While underneath these leafy tents they keep
The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.
And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
That pave with level flags their burial-place,
Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
And broken by Moses at the mountain’s base.
The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.
“Blessed be God! for he created Death!”
The mourner said, “and Death is rest and peace!”
Then added, in the certainty of faith,
“And giveth Life that nevermore shall cease.”
Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,
No Psalms of David now the silence break,
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue
In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.
Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.
How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o'er the sea -that desert desolate -
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?
They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
The life of anguish and the death of fire.
All their lives long, with the unleavened bread
And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
The wasting famine of the heart they fed,
And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.
Anathema maranatha! was the cry
That rang from town to town, from street to street:
At every gate the accursed Mordecai
Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.
Pride and humiliation hand in hand
Walked with them through the world where’er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
And yet unshaken as the continent.
For in the background figures vague and vast
Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,
And all the great traditions of the Past
They saw reflected in the coming time.
And thus forever with reverted look
The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
Till life became a Legend of the Dead.
But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow