America’s Oldest Jewish House of Worship
In 1946, the United States Congress designated the Touro Synagogue a National Historic Site, the first religious structure to earn that designation. Completed in 1763, the synagogue is the oldest surviving synagogue building in North America.
The synagogue remains an active house of worship in addition to being a National Historic Site. The Touro Synagogue Foundation offers tours of the synagogue.
Peter Harrison, Architect of Touro Synagogue
Respected colonial architect and Newport resident Peter Harrison designed the synagogue. The Georgian-style architecture possesses a simple appearance, but is highly symbolic. It is situated so that the congregation faces east to Jerusalem during worship services. Inside, the furnishings revolve around the number twelve, representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel. For example, the interior is flanked by a series of twelve Ionic columns supporting balconies.
For the building’s exterior, Harrison drew on his enthusiasm for Palladian architecture. He is credited with being one of the first to bring this then-popular European architectural style to the American colonies.
Touro Synagogue was dedicated during the festival celebrations at Chanukah on December 2, 1763. The dedication was attended by clergy and other dignitaries from around the colony including Congregationalist Minister Ezra Stiles, who later became the president of Yale University.
Interior of Touro Synagogue
Brief History of the Touro Synagogue
By the 1670s, the small but growing port town of Newport had received its first Jewish residents. These families likely came from Barbados, where a Jewish community had existed since the 1620s. They were of Spanish and Portuguese origin; their families had migrated from Amsterdam and London to Brazil and then the islands of Suriname, Barbados, Curaçao and Jamaica.
Upon their arrival in Newport, these Jewish families formed what would be the second oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. They called themselves Yeshuat Israel, or Salvation of Israel.
Through the early and middle 1700s, Newport took a leading role in the shipping and mercantile trades of the American Colonies. By 1758, the Jewish population had grown sufficiently that it felt the need for a permanent gathering place and house of worship. The Congregation accepted the offer of Newport resident Peter Harrison to design at no cost a new building to house their synagogue. Harrison, a British American merchant and sea captain, was self-tutored in architecture, studying mostly from books and drawings. He had already completed the design and construction of Newport’s Redwood Library and King’s Chapel in Boston.
From the Revolution to the First Amendment
Soon after the American Revolution erupted, the British occupied Newport. Many of its residents fled, removing their families and businesses to Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. The Hebrew Congregation’s spiritual leader, Reverend Isaac Touro, kept watch over the synagogue as it became a hospital for the British military and then a public assembly hall. During the occupation, the British troops, desperate for wood during the long, cold winters, tore down and burned a number of local residences and buildings. The synagogue’s usefulness as a hospital ward and meetinghouse spared it from that fate. In October 1779 the King’s troops evacuated Newport and within a year or two some of the Jewish families returned to town and took up their businesses again.
British Occupation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1776
Years of Decline
The war and British occupation took their toll on the Rhode Island’s economy. The rival ports of New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, and Boston quickly overshadowed Newport’s hold on the mercantile trades. Many of the Jewish merchants of Newport also had business interests in these other cities, and, by the time the War of 1812 ended, most of the Jewish families had moved to synagogue communities in those cities. The Newport synagogue held services infrequently during high holidays and for weddings and funerals. Eventually, the remaining congregants decided to lock the doors. Stephen Gould, a member of a local Quaker family and good friend to many of the former Jewish residents of Newport, was engaged as caretaker.
Legal oversight of the building, its contents, and its deed was handed to Congregation Shearith Israel of New York in trust for the Jewish community of Newport. From its beginning there had been a close relationship between Congregation Yeshuat Israel of Newport and the older Spanish-Portuguese congregation in New York. In fact, many of the founding families of Newport had come originally from Congregation Shearith Israel; it was from the New York community that they had obtained several ritual objects for their worship services.
Renaming the Synagogue
Through the first half of the nineteenth century, even as the Jews of Congregation Yeshuat Israel dispersed, they did not relinquish their sense of responsibility for their synagogue or their burial ground. As members died, their bodies were returned to Yeshuat Israel’s cemetery for interment. Newport natives Abraham and Judah Touro, sons of Isaac Touro, both provided bequests to ensure the perpetual care and maintenance of the Congregation’s properties.
In 1822, Abraham Touro had a brick wall built around the cemetery, and when he died in 1822 he bequeathed $10,000 to the State of Rhode Island for the support and maintenance of the “Old Jewish Synagogue” in Newport. He made an additional bequest of $5,000 for the maintenance of the street that runs downhill from the cemetery to the synagogue building. As a result of Abraham’s generosity, the street was renamed from Griffin Street to Touro Street, the name it bears today. When the state legislature accepted Abraham’s gift, they were the first to publicly refer to the synagogue as “Touro (or Touro’s) Synagogue.”
Abraham’s brother Judah Touro died in 1854. Prior to his death he had seen to the replacement of the wall his brother Abraham had built thirty years earlier, which had fallen into disrepair. The brick wall was replaced with a granite and wrought iron enclosure that endures today. When Judah died, his will, which was published in several languages around the world, left bequests to both Jewish and non-Jewish charitable organizations in the United States and abroad. To Newport he gave $10,000 towards the ministry and maintenance of the synagogue, $3,000 towards building repairs and book purchases for the Redwood Library, and $10,000 for the Old Stone Mill, with the property to become a public park. Today, Abraham and Judah Touro are hailed as amongst the first great American philanthropists.
Entrance of Touro Synagogue
The end of the nineteenth century ushered in new life for the Touro Synagogue with the arrival of the eastern European Jews to the United States. In 1881, this “new” Jewish community of Newport petitioned Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City to reopen Touro Synagogue for services. The fledgling Newport congregation invited Abraham Pereira Mendes of London to lead them. He arrived in 1883 and served as their rabbi for ten years. The newcomers incorporated themselves as Congregation Jeshuat Israel. Congregation Shearith Israel required Jeshuat Israel to function as an Orthodox community following the traditional Spanish and Portuguese rituals. In May of 2016, a Rhode Island court declared Congregation Jeshuat Israel the legal trustees of Touro Synagogue and relieved Shearith Israel of control of the building and its contents.
The non-profit, non-sectarian organization Friends of Touro Synagogue, now called the Touro Synagogue Foundation, was established in 1948 to aid in raising funds to maintain the building and grounds and publicize the history of Touro Synagogue. Each year, the Touro Synagogue Foundation holds a public reading of the George Washington Letter as a celebration and pronouncement of religious freedom.