20 September 2010

Rhode Island: Newport's Jewish history

In 1790, George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island.

A few days later, he wrote a letter to the synagogue members - Sephardim who had fled the Inquisition, settled in the Dutch West Indies, were expelled in the 1650s and came to America.

Congregation Jeshuat Israel (established 1658) is now Touro Synagogue (dedicated 1763), the oldest synagogue in America. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1946. In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Touro to become part of its collection of historic sites.

The letter assured Jews of full citizenship in the US.

Wrote Washington, “…the government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance… every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Each year, the letter is read aloud in the synagogue; this year the date was August 22 and some 150 people gathered to hear the 63rd annual reading.

Following the reading, guests visited the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Visitors Center, which opened last August. It is a state-of-the-art museum spotlighting Touro's role in the birth of religious freedom and contributions Jews have made to America. Loeb funded the center; his ancestors were among Touro's first congregants, including the first spiritual leader, Isaac Touro.

Guests also toured the Colonial Jewish Burial Ground, near the synagogue, where many founding families are buried. Perhaps the most notable is Judah Touro, a Newport-born philanthropist whose donation funded the restoration and maintenance of the cemetery, the second oldest Jewish cemetery in America.

For more information on the annual event, see the Rhode Island Jewish Voice & Herald for the story by Nancy Abeshaus. For more on the Touro Synagogue, click here.

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