The Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., has long been a symbol of tolerance, beginning as a haven for Jews who escaped the Inquisition. Later it served as a sanctuary for African-Americans who escaped slavery.
Touro Synagogue was consecrated on Dec. 2, 1763. It is the only synagogue built in Colonial America that still survives.
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. George Washington wrote a letter to a leader of the congregation denouncing bigotry. Later the synagogue was a stop on the Underground Railroad and runaway slaves hid under the trap door.
Prosperity and Worship
Spanish and Portuguese Jews had lived in Rhode Island since the mid-17th century. In 1658, 15 Sephardic Jewish families that escaped the Inquisition via Barbados arrived in Newport. They left a permanent mark on Newport by establishing a cemetery in 1677. Several more waves of Jewish families then arrived from Curacao in 1690 and from New York in the mid-18th century.
Newport’s small Jewish population met for worship in private homes. Many Newport Jews were prosperous merchants active 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 that it needed a permanent house of worship.
Newport architect Peter Harrison, born and trained in England, volunteered to design the synagogue. He planned a building with a plain Georgian exterior that hides an elaborate interior. Harrison also designed the Redwood Library in Newport and King’s Chapel in Boston.
Stiles, who studied the Jewish community in Newport, praised the ceremony and the building’s interior in his diary. He was impressed by ‘three Copes & Rolls of the Pentateuch, written on Vellum or rather tanned Calf Skin.’ One was 200 years old. Stiles later became president of Yale College and required students to study Hebrew.
Isaac Touro, born in the Netherlands, served as the synagogue’s first hazzan, or minister. Grateful for England’s protection and loyal to the Crown, 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.
No Sanction to Bigotry
Two of Isaac Touro’s sons acquired great wealth. Judah moved to New Orleans and become one of the country’s greatest philanthropists. Among many other gifts, he donated the final $10,000 to complete the Bunker Hill Monument.
Abraham in 1826 donated enough money to maintain the synagogue. Newporters had begun calling it Touro’s when Judah died 28 years later. He left a bequest that provided for the perpetual care of the synagogue and the cemetery.
When George Washington famously visited Newport in 1790, Moses Seixas, a leader in the Touro Synagogue sent him a letter. In it, he thanked God for allowing him to create a nation that did not tolerate bigotry.
Washington’s reply carried a strong statement in support of extending religious freedoms to non-Christians. The government of the United States ‘gives to bigotry no sanction,’ Washington replied. The congregation recites the letter annually at the synagogue.
Touro Synagogue in Modern Times
In 1946, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger successfully lobbied to have the U.S. Department of the Interior designate the synagogue a National Historic Site. Upon its designation, President Harry S Truman wrote,
The setting apart of this historic shrine as a national monument is symbolic of our national tradition of freedom, which has inspired men and women of every creed, race, and ancestry to contribute their highest gifts to the development of our national culture.
In 2017, a federal court ruled the Shearith Israel congregation in New York actually owns the Touro Synagogue. The reason goes back to the American Revolution. Then, many of Newport’s Jews fled to New York with Isaac Touro from persecution — as Loyalists — to New York.
The congregation dwindled. In New York, Shearith Israel took control of the vacant Touro Synagogue and its sacred ritual objects. The congregation reformed as Jeshuat Israel and leased the Touro Synagogue in 1903 from the New York congregation for $1 a year.
A dispute over the attempted sale of the sacred objects finally landed the two congregations in court. Shearith Israel won, but Jeshuat Israel later appealed the ruling. The Supreme Court declined to take it up and so the ruling stands.
The building continues to open for services and tours.
This story about the Touro Synagogue was updated in 2021.