North America’s oldest synagogue celebrates 256 years of existence

Sephardic merchants, who spoke Spanish and Portuguese, built the synagogue in 1759.

The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (photo credit: FLICKR)
The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island
(photo credit: FLICKR)
At 256 years old, the Touro synagogue remains the oldest standing synagogue in North America.
On December 2, 1763, the synagogue was dedicated during the festival of Hanukkah and was considered 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,” explained the congregation’s rabbi Marc Mandel.
Mandel told The Jerusalem Post that it is “the only surviving synagogue building in the US that dates back to the colonial era.
“Most of the founders were Sephardic Jews,” he continued. “They came to Newport seeking religious tolerance and business opportunities.”
According to Mandel, it was designed by noted British-Colonial era architect and Rhode Island resident Peter Harrison “and is considered his most notable work. Construction of the synagogue began in 1759.
“It was the only synagogue in the area,” he said. “The interior is flanked by a series of 12 Ionic columns supporting balconies. The columns signify the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. Each column is carved from a single tree.”
He added the building was also oriented to face east toward Jerusalem.
One of the most unique events for the Jewish community at the time was in 1790, when the synagogue’s warden, Moses Seixas, wrote to newly elected George Washington, “expressing his support for Washington’s administration and good wishes for him.
Washington sent a letter in response, that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
“For happily, the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support,” Washington wrote to the community.
To commemorate this momentous occasion 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.”
Mandel explained that the Newport Jewish community prospered at the time with the rest of the city, but most Jews left during and after the Revolutionary War.
Despite leaving, throughout the 19th century, the community – many of whom moved to New York – would not relinquish their connection with the synagogue.
The synagogue was later named for Abraham Touro, who had donated money towards maintaining the street and the synagogue during the early 19th century.
“Today we are an active community with a growing Hebrew School and many new members and programs,” Mandel added.
Asked about the origins of this community, associate professor of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University Ronnie Perelis said that the Sephardi Jews “who we are particularly referring to here are Jews, who for the most part, had their roots in Spain.”
He told the Post that following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, “they moved to Portugal, and settled there.”
Already in the early part of the 15th century, Jews were involved in extensive trade in the Atlantic even before Christopher Columbus set sail.
“Once Columbus discovered the Americas, it opened up new commercial opportunities,” he continued, adding that they were involved with merchants and setting up overseas.
“For political reasons, the king of Portugal [Manuel I] converts them all [to Christianity] but didn’t investigate” whether they were committed Christians.
“In private, many maintained their Judaism but 40 years later the Inquisition started investigating.”
It was this that spurred the Jews to look for new places to live and because of their involvement in Atlantic trade, they move to ports and centers of commerce like Amsterdam.
“They settled in Amsterdam and established satellite communities and outposts all over the Atlantic,” including London, “and they basically moved into [parts of] the Americas where British and Dutch ruled.”
Perelis said that they had full rights and highlighted that they also moved to islands in the Caribbean like Curacao, Jamaica, Barbados, and later to New Amsterdam – what would become New York, Newport, Charleston and Savannah.
“They settled in these places because they were all ports and centers of commerce where they could live fully as Jews,” he said. “In all of these places, the authorities gave them full rights; they could trade but sometimes there limitation, but basically their religious rights and business rights were protected.”
He emphasized that “all these little places had stately, beautiful, and well placed synagogues.
“They weren’t hidden like in European cities,” Perelis said. “They were prominent.”
The communities were also linked by familial connections “because the businesses were family businesses.”
When the synagogues in these areas were built, many were styled after the Great Synagogue in Amsterdam.
Asked about the Touro synagogue and its community, Perelis said it was the Sephardic merchants, who spoke Spanish and Portuguese, that built the synagogue.
“The outside looks like a typical colonial building, the inside – the ark and bimah – are set up so the distance is the same proportion as was in Amsterdam – symbolic and mystical reasons link [it] back to the Temple of Solomon.”
He added that prayer books in these communities were usually printed in Amsterdam and London and that the cantors circulated between the communities.
“Touro and Newport were very important, and at the time Rhode Island was one of the most tolerant of colonies, however,” he said, “at some point it stopped being important, and the Sephardi Jews left... then the Ashkenazim came to Newport.”
Perelis explained that they inquired about the building “and the Sephardi congregation in New York, who still owned the Touro synagogue building… rented it to the Ashkenazi community.”
Perelis concluded that people don’t realize that “Jews have been part of the fabric since the beginning.”