Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island | CruiseBe
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Touro Synagogue

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The Touro Synagogue is a 1763 synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, that is the oldest synagogue building still standing in the United States, the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue building in North America, and the only surviving synagogue building in the U.S. dating to the colonial era.

In 1946, it was declared a National Historic Site.




It was designed by noted British-Colonial era architect and Rhode Island resident Peter Harrison and is considered his most notable work. The interior is flanked by a series of twelve Ionic columns supporting balconies. The columns signify the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. Each column is carved from a single tree. Located at 85 Touro Street, the Touro Synagogue remains an active Orthodox synagogue. The building is oriented to face east toward Jerusalem. The ark containing the Torah is on the east wall; above it is a mural representing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. It was painted by the Newport artist Benjamin Howland.

The Touro Synagogue was built from 1759 to 1763 for the Jeshuat Israel congregation in Newport under the leadership of Cantor (Chazzan) Isaac Touro. The cornerstone was laid by Aaron Lopez, a philanthropist and merchant in Newport involved in the spermaceti candlemaking business, slave trade and other commercial ventures. The Jeshuat Israel congregation itself dates back to 1658 when 15 Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families arrived, probably from the West Indies, and many settled near Easton's Point. The synagogue was formally dedicated 2 December 1763. Other notable leaders include Abraham Pereira Mendes and Henry Samuel Morais (1900–01).

Judah Touro, the son of Isaac Touro and his wife Reyna, made a fortune as a merchant in New Orleans. He left $10,000 ($260,000 in current dollar terms) in his will for the upkeep of the Jewish cemetery and synagogue in Newport.

In 1946, Touro Synagogue was designated a National Historic Site and is an affiliated area of the National Park Service. The synagogue was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. In 2001, the congregation joined into a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The building underwent a restoration in 2005–06. In honor of the 250th anniversary, a recreation of the original dedication ceremony was conducted in 2013.

Annual recitation of the Washington–Seixas letter on religious pluralism

In 1790, the synagogue's warden, Moses Seixas, wrote to George Washington, expressing his support for Washington's administration and good wishes for him. Washington sent a letter in response, which read in part:

... the Government of the United States ... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. ... May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy."

Speakers at the annual event have included Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan; and Brown University Presidents Ruth Simmons and Christina Paxson.


The congregation at Newport, never large, was composed of Jews with roots in the Sephardic Spanish and Portuguese diaspora, with some Ashkenazim by the eighteenth century.

The first Jewish residents of Newport, fifteen Spanish Jewish families, arrived in 1658. It is presumed that they arrived via the communities in Curaçao home to the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas, dating to 1651 and Suriname. The small community worshiped in rooms in private homes for more than a century before they could afford to build a synagogue.

The community purchased and dedicated the Jewish Cemetery at Newport in 1677.

In the late 1700s, the Jewish community removed the Torah scrolls and sent them for safekeeping along with the deed to the building to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. The keys left the Jewish community and were passed to the Goulds, a Quaker family in Newport.

From the 1850s on, the building was occasionally opened for worship for the convenience of summer visitors. It was reopened on a regular basis in 1883 as Jewish life in Newport revived with the late nineteenth century immigration of eastern European Jews. The synagogue acquired a nearby building and ran a Hebrew School and other activities. It continues to serve as a thriving congregation with many year round programs.

Although the congregation has been predominantly Ashkenazi for a century, it is constitutionally obliged to use the "Sephardic ritual". It therefore uses the ArtScroll Nusach Sefard prayer book; once a year representatives of the New York community visit and hold a service in the Spanish and Portuguese style.

Rabbi Dr. Marc Mandel became the rabbi in July 2012. As of 2012, the congregation consists of about 175 families.

Ownership controversy

Conflict over the ownership of the Touro building and its contents surfaced in 2012. Newport’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel put up for sale ceremonial bells, called rimonim, to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for $7.4 million. New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel then sued the Newport congregation, saying Shearith Israel owns the Touro synagogue building and the rimonim. They also want to evict the Newport congregation from the Touro building and site. In April 2015 both sides of the dispute said several attempts at mediation had failed and they were therefore preparing for trial.

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