Touro Synagogue

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Touro Synagogue (Rhode Island)

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Touro Synagogue is the oldest Jewish center of worship in the United States. The original congregation was formally organized in 1658, and the building was dedicated in 1763. The original congregation traced its history to the fabled Jewish community of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) who in 1492 and 1493 were expelled from their homes by Christian rulers. Forced to convert to Christianity or leave, many Iberian Jews professed Christianity while secretly remaining adherents of Judaism. Such converts became known as marranos, a derogatory term meaning swine that is a reference to their refusal to eat pork.

Suspected of remaining loyal to their former faith, the marranos lived under the threat of the Spanish Inquisition. Many moved to Brazil, where a large population existed in Recife by the seventeenth century. In 1624, Holland, then the most religiously tolerant country in Europe, seized land from the Portuguese in northern Brazil, including Recife. Shortly thereafter, Dutch policies resulted in the marranos casting off their Christian facade; immigration of other Iberian Jews who had previously settled in Holland also increased. In 1636, Recife Jews built the Kahal Zur synagogue, and the Jewish population peaked at about 1,500 around that time.

Then, in 1654, the Portuguese retaliated and drove the Dutch out of Brazil. They left with their Jewish citizens, who settled Dutch territory on the island of Curaçao and in New York (then New Amsterdam). Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela, is now home to the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere, and New York became the site of the first Jewish congregation. The primary relic of this congregation is their cemetery.

In 1658 fifteen Iberian Jewish families who had earlier settled in Barbados moved to Newport, Rhode Island. Here they were able to take advantage of the guarantees of religious freedom promulgated by Roger Williams, the colony’s governor. In 1658 Congregation Jesuit Israel, the second American Jewish congregation, was established. This congregation, joined by fellow Jews from Recife and Curaçao, survived over the next century, and in 1758 Isaac de Touro of Amsterdam became its rabbi. He led the construction of the synagogue building that now bears his name. It survives as the oldest synagogue standing in America. It was built by Peter Harrison, an outstanding architect who happened to live in Newport.

The original congregation was not able to enjoy the building for long, however, because the establishment of British control of the city during the American Revolution led to the scattering of the congregation. Yet, the building survived and eventually a few families returned to the city and reopened the synagogue. Concerned about their status in the new country, in 1790 Moses Seixas, the congregation’s warden, wrote George Washington concerning the American government’s policies. Washington’s reply, written a year before the ratification of the Bill of Rights, is one of the earliest statements of the religious freedoms soon to become the law of the land.

Over the years, the Sephardic element in the Newport congregation died out. The present congregation consists of Jews not of Iberian background. Visitors to Newport may see Washington’s letter on display, as well as the oldest Torah scroll in America.

Sources:

Fisher, Leonard Everett. To Bigotry, No Sanction: The Story of the Oldest Synagogue in America. New York: Holiday House, 1998.
Foster, Geraldine S. The Jews in Rhode Island: A Brief History. Providence, RI: Rhode Island Heritage Commission/Rhode Island Publications Society, 1985.
Gutstein, Morris Aaron. The Story of the Jews of Newport: Two and a Half Centuries of Judaism. New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1936.
Touro Synagogue of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, Newport, Rhode Island. Founded 1658, Dedicated 1763, Designated as a National Historic Site, 1946. Newport, RI: Society of Friends of Touro Synagogue National Historic Shrine, 1948.