In 1658, the small but growing colony of Newport, Rhode Island received its first Jewish residents. These fifteen families came from Barbados, where a Jewish community had existed since the 1620s. They were of Spanish and Portuguese origin; their families had migrated from Amsterdam and London to Brazil and then the islands of Suriname, Barbados, Curaçao and Jamaica. Upon their arrival they formalized a new congregation in Newport (the second oldest Jewish congregation in the United States) calling themselves 'Yeshuat Israel'. By 1677, the community realized the need to acquire land for a Jewish cemetery. Two of the original immigrants, Mordechai Campanal and Moses Israel Paeheco purchased the lot at the corner of what is now Kay and Touro Streets for this purpose.
First Jews in Newport:Leaders of the first Jewish settlers in Newport included Mordechai Campanal, Moses Israel Paeheco, Simon Mendez, and Abraham Burgos. In the 1680s they tested the British Navigation laws which prohibited aliens from engaging in mercantile trades. In 1684 The General Assembly of Rhode Island resolved that the group were able to conduct business, and that they were entitled to the the full protection of the law as resident strangers.
Building the Synagogue
Through the early and middle 1700s, Newport rose in prominence and importance, taking a leading role in the shipping and mercantile trades of the American Colonies. By 1758, the Jewish population had grown sufficiently that there was need for a larger, permanent gathering place and a house of worship. The Congregation accepted the offer of Newport resident Peter Harrison, who volunteered to design a new building to house the synagogue. Harrison, a British American merchant and sea captain, was self-tutored in architecture, studying mostly from books and drawings. He had already completed the building of Newport’s Redwood Library and King’s Chapel in Boston. Construction began on the “Jews Synagogue” in 1759. At the same time, Harrison was also building Christ Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Brick Market in Newport, completed in 1762.
A number of theories have been put forth as to how Harrison, having no direct experience of the needs and requirements of a Jewish house of worship, could execute the elegant design of New England’s first synagogue. He had a limited choice of earlier models to draw on in the Western Hemisphere. He might have seen the Mikvé Israel Synagogue on the island of Curaçao. Their first building was constructed in 1703 and their second building had been dedicated in 1732. Congregation Shearith Israel in New York had also already built their first Mill Street Synagogue (dedicated in 1730). Jewish communities throughout America’s mid-Atlantic region and in the Caribbean were closely tied to Newport’s Jewish citizens through family and business interests. Generous financial support also came for the new building in Rhode Island from both of these congregations and from the Jewish communities in London, Jamaica, and Surinam.
For the building’s exterior Harrison drew on his knowledge of and enthusiasm for Palladian architecture. He is credited with being one of the first to bring this popular European architectural style to the American colonies. For the interior, his best references came directly from the members of the congregation, notably, the Hazzan [prayer leader], Isaac Touro, who had only recently arrived from Amsterdam. The Newport building was completed in 1763 and was dedicated during the Chanukah festival celebrations on December 2nd of that year. The dedication ceremony was a regional celebration attended not only by the congregation, but also by clergy and other dignitaries from around the colony including Congregationalist Minister Ezra Stiles who later became the president of Yale University. His diaries have proven a treasure trove of information on Newport, the Rhode Island colony, and the Jewish community of the mid-eighteenth century.
From the Revolution to the First Amendment
At the onset of the American Revolution, the British occupied Newport and many of the Jewish residents of the city fled, removing their families and businesses to Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. Remaining behind was Isaac Touro, who kept watch over the synagogue as it became a hospital for the British military and a public assembly hall. During the occupation, the British troops, desperate for wood during the long, cold winters tore down and burned a number of local residences and buildings. The synagogue’s usefulness as a hospital ward and meeting house kept it from the same fate. In October 1779 the King’s troops evacuated Newport and within a year or two many of the Jewish families returned to town and took up their businesses again.
In August 1790, three months after Rhode Island had joined the United States by ratifying the Constitution, George Washington chose to visit Newport for a public appearance to rally support for the new Bill of Rights. As part of the welcoming ceremonies for the President of the United States, Moses Mendes Seixas, then president of Congregation Yeshuat Israel , was one of the community leaders given the honor of addressing Washington. In his letter of welcome, Seixas chose to raise the issues of religious liberties and the separation of church and state. Washington’s response, quoting Seixas’ thoughts, has come down to us as a key policy statement of the new government in support of First Amendment rights.
The Quiet Years
The War for Independence and the occupation by the British took their toll on the region’s economy. The rival ports of New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, and Boston quickly overshadowed Newport’s hold on the mercantile trades. Many of the Jewish merchants of Newport already had business interests in these cities. By the time the War of 1812 ended, most of the Jewish families had moved to newly forming synagogue communities in the rival cities. The Newport synagogue was being used infrequently, opened only during holy days and for funerals. Eventually, the remaining congregants decided to lock the doors. Stephen Gould, a member of a local Quaker family and good friend to many of the former Jewish residents of Newport, was engaged as caretaker. Legal oversight of the building, its contents, and its deed was handed to Congregation Shearith Israel of New York. From the Synagogue’s beginning there had been a close relationship between Congregation Yeshuat Israel of Newport and the older Spanish-Portuguese community in New York, just over one day of sailing distant. In fact, many of the founding families of Newport had come originally from Congregation Shearith Israel and it was from the New York community that they had obtained several ritual objects for their services.
Naming the Synagogue
Through the first half of the nineteenth century, even as the Jews of Newport dispersed, they did not relinquish their sense of responsibility to their synagogue or to their burial ground. As members died, their bodies were returned to Yeshuat Israel for interment. Newport natives Abraham and Judah Touro, sons of Isaac Touro, both provided bequests to see to the perpetual care and maintenance of the Congregation’s properties.
In 1820, Abraham Touro had a brick wall built around the cemetery, and when he died in 1822 he bequeathed $10,000 to the State of Rhode Island for the support and maintenance of the “Old Jewish Synagogue” in Newport. He made an additional bequest of $5,000 for the maintenance of the street which runs from the cemetery down the hill to the synagogue building. As a result of his generosity, the street was named “Touro Street.” When the state legislature accepted Abraham’s gift, they were the first to publicly refer to the synagogue as “Touro (or Touro’s) Synagogue.”
Abraham’s brother, Judah Touro died in 1854. Prior to his death he had seen to the replacement of the wall his brother Abraham had built thirty years prior, which was in disrepair. The brick wall was replaced with a granite and wrought iron enclosure. When Judah died, his will, which was published in several languages around the world, left bequests to both Jewish and non-Jewish charitable organizations in the United States and abroad. To Newport he gave $10,000 towards the ministry and maintenance of the synagogue, $3,000 towards building repairs and book purchases for the Redwood Library, and $10,000 for the Old Stone Mill, with the property to become a public park. Both brothers, Abraham and Judah Touro, are hailed as amongst the first great American philanthropists.
The end of the nineteenth century ushered in new life for the Touro Synagogue with the arrival of the eastern European Jews to the United States. In 1881, the “new” Jewish community of Newport petitioned Congregation Shearith Israel to reopen the town’s synagogue for services and to appoint a permanent rabbi. Abraham Pereira Mendes of London was called to Newport, arriving in 1883 and served as the Rabbi to Congregation Yeshuat Israel for ten years. During and following this period, Congregation Shearith Israel in New York retained rights to the building but an independent Congregation Jeshuat Israel [sic] was re-established, choosing to affiliate as an Orthodox community following Spanish Portuguese ritual traditions. A lease amount of $1 per year is still paid by the current Newport congregation to Congregation Shearith Israel for use of the building and grounds, which are still owned by the New York group.
Then in 1946, Touro Synagogue, as it is now known, was designated a National Historic Site. The Friends of Touro Synagogue (now the Touro Synagogue Foundation) was established two years later to aid in the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings and grounds as well as to raise funds for and to publicize the history of the Touro Synagogue. Each year, the Touro Foundation sponsors an educational lecture series and holds a public reading of the George Washington letter as a celebration and pronouncement of religious freedom. The synagogue remains an active house of worship and is also toured by thousands of visitors every year.