Isaac Touro delivered a Hebrew Thanksgiving sermon on Nov. 28, 1765, praising King George III for protecting Newport’s Jews.
His sermon took place before worshippers in the new Touro Synagogue. Since 1658, Newport had been a haven for Jews who escaped the Portuguese and Spanish inquisitions, which wouldn’t end until well into the 19th century. Rhode Island, after all, had been founded on the principle of religious tolerance.
Touro was only 27, but he had already moved from his native Amsterdam to Jamaica to New York to Newport. He was a hazzan, or minister, perhaps not educated enough to be a rabbi. He taught Hebrew to a Puritan minister in Newport, Ezra Stiles, who became president of Yale College.
Like so many transatlantic Jews, Isaac Touro had learned to adapt to different cultures. So when Gov. Samuel Ward declared a day of Thanksgiving for the colony of Rhode Island, Touro decided to combine Jewish tradition with contemporary culture.
His Hebrew sermon made news, as the local newspaper printed it in full and in English.
Touro’s sermon is one of the first Jewish prayers recorded in America. It’s also the first recorded official act of Jewish affiliation with New England tradition.
Before they built the synagogue in 1763, Newport’s small Jewish population met for worship in private homes. Many of the Jewish community were merchants who prospered in the sea trade. What is now Bellevue Avenue was lined with Jewish shops. By 1758 the population had so grown in size and prominence a permanent house of worship was needed.
The building has a trap door under the bimah, the platform used for Torah readings. It’s a reminder of the need to flee from soldiers during the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.
In his sermon, Touro asked God for peace in the land and a peace among all states and potentates. He asked for God’s compassion and mercy, and to ‘prosper’ ‘our most gracious Sovereign, King George the third, and all the Royal family.’ He also prayed for God to preserve ‘the whole British Empire.’
Touro would later pay a price for his loyalty to the British. Grateful for their protection, he stayed in Newport when the British captured the town in 1776. Three years later he moved with the British to New York, where he had to depend on charity. In 1782 he moved to Kingston, Jamaica and died a year later.
Two of his sons became rich. Judah moved to New Orleans and became a great philanthropist, donating the last $10,000 to build the Bunker Hill Monument. Abraham donated funds to maintain the Touro Synagogue.
With thanks to New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America By Michael Hoberman.