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Religious Freedom in the New World: The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island

On a narrow, quiet street in the middle of the colonial district of Newport Rhode Island, there sits a building with history. It's a tidy looking classical building sitting a bit askew on the small piece of land. The Touro Synagogue has been standing on Touro Street since 1658. It is the oldest synagogue in the United States, and listed as a National Historic Site in 1946. But the story and the real significance goes back much further. It's the story of religious tolerance born out of intolerance. Of a principle pledged by a revolutionary government in the person of George Washington.

Religious Freedom in Rhode Island

In 1400s the Moslems and Jews were fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Given the choice of converting to Christianity, leaving Spain, or dying, many sold their belongings and attempted to move to more hospitable countries, including the Dutch colonies in the New World.

Around the same time, Roger Williams as a result of his own religious beliefs was requested to leave the Puritan colony of Massachusetts. His banishment convinced him that the best form of government was one which allowed true separation of church and state. More importantly, Williams and his fellow colonists were able to persuade King Charles II of England to go along with what Charles referred to in the Royal Charter of 1663 "a lively experiment"

... that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion...

Eventually stories began filtering back to the West Indies of a colony founded on true religious freedom. In 1658 a wave of families ventured north to Newport Rhode Island. The community slowly grew and they needed a place to worship, to educate their children, and bury their dead. They looked to Amsterdam for a Rabbi and in 1758 Isaac Touro came to Newport from Amsterdam. He officiated a the Cantor, one who leads the congregation in singing and praying, and functioned as a rabbi. And they looked to the eminent colonial architect Peter Harrison to design their religious haven. On December 2, 1763 the synagogue was dedicated.

The Revolutionary War

For a while, life went smoothly. The congregation flourished. But the cry of "no taxation without representation" filled the land. When the British, at the start of the Revolutionary War, invaded Newport, the people fled the tiny city. The building was saved by turning it into a British hospital. It was more difficult than it sounded. The frigid New England winters taxed the resources of the British soldiers. Wood was scarce and houses were torn down for firewood. But the building endured. Time passed. But finally enough Jewish families returned to reopen the synagogue.

It's a touching story, but it doesn't end there. After centuries of moving from one country to another at the whim of changing rulers, the congregation felt as much concern as they did joy over the new government. Yes, political freedom was a heady and wonderful thing. But would there also be religious freedom. What was the intention of the new government? So, in 1790 Moses Seixas, warden of the synagogue of the congregation wrote to George Washington, asking him the intentions of the fledgling government.

Religious Freedom -- Not Mere Tolerance

Washington's reply was quick and clear, "...The Citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts." Clearly there would be religious freedom not because the powerful allowed the less powerful that gift, but because it was a right of citizenship, available to all. He affirmed that this country would become a religious haven for all people.

And then he went even further. The new government would actively protect their rights. He writes "...while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." Then, and now, it remains one of this countries greatest strengths, and most remarkable policies, breaking free of the restraints of religious intolerance that had marked so much of history.

The letter, written a year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, is on display at the Touro synagogue. It was the first time a statement of religious freedom for everyone had been so clearly asserted.

Touro Today

Today the Touro Synagogue is thriving. The building itself is a small jewel of classic design. It's warm and intimate yet with a tangible history creating a kinship with spiritual ancestors. There are two levels, with the women's gallery upstairs, reached through a separate staircase. Each level has 12 columns, each one carved from a single tree commemorating the 12 tribes of Israel.

There's also a bit of mystery about the building. A trap door under the bema, or special platform, leads down to a dugout room. Although it was part of the original plan, no one really knows its purpose. One popular speculation is that it was related to the ordeal in Spain when in order to practice their religious rituals Jews had to hide in basements and windowless rooms. It may have been included as a reminder never to take religious freedom for granted.

The dedicated congregation clearly value the history. They are mostly Ashkenazi, and few are orthodox, but they honor the remarkable history by keeping the religiously orthodox Sephardic style worship. Public tours are available but the hours change throughout the year. There are no tours on Jewish holidays, or or on Saturdays. Check the hours at Touro Synagogue

There's also a small garden adjacent to the synagogue. Filled with plants and flowers, it's a peaceful place, but one which commemorates Jewish patriots from each of the original 13 colonies.

Located in the heart of historic colonial Newport, tiny Touro street is one of many which tangles through the historic district. At the end of the street is the Jewish cemetery. It is the second oldest in the country. The gates themselves are decorated with torches turned to face downward, an acknowledgement of the ending of life's flame.

The Touro Synagogue is more than a vestige of past glory, or even a site made important by the historical precedent espoused by Washington. It has seen its place in history and intends to bring that message forward. The synagogue is part of the National Park Service . The Loeb Visitors Center, under development for several years, has just opened next to the synagogue. It brings together the history as the gateway to the Touro campus, which includes the Visitors Center, the green and grassy Patriots Park (dedicated to significant roles played by Jews in the development of the United States), as well as the Touro Synagogue National Historic Site, and the historic Colonial Jewish Burying Ground. The Visitors Center exhibitions are a celebration of America’s first amendment rights through changing and permanent exhibits.

The Touro Synagogue Foundation
85 Touro Street
Newport, RI 02840
(401) 847-4794

© 2009