07 June 2008

Rhode Island: Touro Synagogue

Talk about energy efficiency. The Touro Synagogue's low-watt bulb in its eternal light - ner tamid - has burned for more than a century since the building was electrified in the 1880s.

The Los Angeles Jewish Journal's story on the historic structure in Newport, Rhode Island, also touched on other curiosities of history.

Built nearly 250 years ago, Touro - the oldest synagogue in the United States and the only one remaining from pre-Revolutionary times - is famous for its longevity, architectural elegance and status as a symbol of American civil liberty.

Any mention of the synagogue (for example, this one) must include a reference to the 1790 letter from George Washington assuring Touro's congregants and all "Children of the Stock of Abraham" that "happily the Government of the United States ... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

Yet for most people, Touro is a tour stop, a footnote in American Jewish history, or at best, a chapter heading. Even Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz, who had always included Touro (and Washington's letter) in the history classes he taught, "presumed it was just a museum," he said, "not a functioning synagogue."

That is, until he heard they were hiring.

"I thought, 'What a great opportunity to relive Jewish history,'" said the rabbi, who has led the congregation for the last 12 years.

With about 130 families, Congregation Jeshuat Israel's services are Orthodox Sephardic - men pray from benches surrounding the reading platform while women sit in the upstairs gallery. It is not affiliated with any major denomination. The congregation's family includes tourists, Newport Naval Station officers and local families. Some 30,000 visit each year on weekday tours. Attendees range from the Orthodox to liberal and Chasidim.

It is history in action. Set on one of the town's highest points, it faces east towards Jerusalem. In 1759, Dutch-born hazan Rev. Isaac Touro commissioned architect Peter Harrison to draw the plans. Records indicate Harrison never sent a bill, and called it a "labor of love."

Early day visitors included President George Washington and minister Ezra Stiles - who would become Yale University president - studied Hebrew with Touro's rabbis. During Stile's office, Hebrew was a requirement for all students and valedictory speeches were given in Hebrew and are part of the school's seal. More contemporary visitors included Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and various Jewish celebrities.

According to the story, this year is the 350th anniversary of Newport's Jewish community - the second in North America. Its earliest founders came from Curacao, four years after a group of Jewish families arrived in New York in 1654.

The Jews of Rhode Island chose Roger Williams' colony because it was founded as a haven of religious tolerance more than 100 years before the American Revolution.

It is the National Park Service's only Jewish National Historic shrine. The rabbi says that many visitors rediscover their own connection to Judaism on a visit. Additionally, he says that Jews are building or buying summer homes near the synagogue and he's raising money to build a new mikva to replace the old one that has not functioned for 50 years.

Following a complete restoration in 2006, the sanctuary reopened with its original candelabra and candlesticks and inscriptions dating to the 1700s. A 500-year-old Torah scroll is displayed.

And also among the "artifacts" uncovered by the crew was the original light bulb from the ner tamid, which, when replaced in its socket, glowed once again -- a fitting symbol in a building that has always been a symbol.

Read more here

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