Touro Synagogue has the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in the United States and is also considered to be one of the most architecturally distinguished and historically significant buildings of 18th-century America.The story of Touro Synagogue spans over 500 years. Although the first Jewish settlements in North America date to 1654 in New Amsterdam and 1658 in Newport, their narrative, one of perseverance, tradition and religious freedom, begins in 1492, the same year King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain both financed Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World and issued the Edict of Expulsion. All Jews, rich or poor, living in Spain were forced to "conversion or exile."
While many Jews in Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism, thousands fled seeking refuge in the Netherlands, Caribbean Islands, and South America. When the inquisition followed on their heels, they searched for sanctuary in the America's newly founded colonies.
In 1658, a group of fifteen Jewish families, hearing about Roger William's "Lively Experiment," where the civil government was devoid of power over spiritual matters, sailed into Newport harbor. These Sephardim (the Hebrew word for Jews from the region in the Iberian Peninsula that is now Spain and Portugal), who like their ancestors were seeking a haven from religious persecution, founded the second Jewish settlement in the colonies and Congregation Jeshuat Israel (Salvation of Israel). In 1677, they purchased and consecrated property as a Jewish cemetery, a place where they could bury their dead according to Jewish tradition.
With the assurance of religious freedom and liberty of conscience, as promised by Governor Roger Williams, the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations offered more than a refuge; it offered unparalleled social and economic opportunities.
Over the next 100 years the Jewish population of Newport flourished. In 1758, a Dutch Jew named Isaac Touro, became the congregation's first spiritual leader. A year later the congregation purchased land and hired Peter Harrison, the preeminent architect of the colonial era, to design Touro Synagogue. The synagogue was completed and dedicated in 1763.
In 1776 the British captured Newport. A once vital and thriving commercial seaport, much of Newport was destroyed. Supporting the American cause, most Jews left. Until the French liberated Newport, the synagogue was used as a hospital for the British troops and was spared.
After the war Touro Synagogue served as a meeting place for the Rhode Island General Assembly, Rhode Island Supreme Court and the town of Newport. During George Washington's visit to Newport in 1781, to meet with Generals Lafayette and Rochambeau to plan the final battles of the Revolution, a town meeting was held at the synagogue.
Touro Synagogue took on a special significance in 1790 when President George Washington, in his letter "To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport," declared that the new nation would "… give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." These few words affirmed the founding fathers commitment to the principals of religious freedom as a cornerstone of democracy in America.
The synagogue, which continues to serve an active Jewish congregation, greets approximately 30,000 visitors a year who come to see its magnificent interior and hear the remarkable story of its founding.
America's oldest synagogue is definitely worth a visit. It was designed by Peter Harrison, America's most famous 18th century architect. The synagogue was placed on an angle, so it faced east, which meant the ark was facing the right direction.
Outside is a copy of the letter written by George Washington, expressing that religeous freedom applies to everyone, including the Jewish community.
Services are available on the weekendsand jewish holidays. Men and married women are expected to wear a head covering during services.
Touro Synagogue was built by Sephardim seeking religious freedom in Rhode Island. The synagogue was built in 1763 and remains an active Jewish congregation to this day.