History In The Headlines

Oldest U.S. Synagogue Turns 250

By Jesse Greenspan
On December 2, 1763, the second day of Hanukkah, the oldest U.S. synagogue still standing was dedicated in Newport, Rhode Island. At the time, Jews and other religious minorities were generally barred from voting or holding elected office in colonial America.
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The first Jewish community in the United States dates back to 1654, when 23 refugees sailed from Recife, Brazil—which the religiously intolerant Portuguese had just recaptured from the relatively open-minded Dutch—to New Amsterdam (now New York City). Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of the colony, immediately tried to expel them, saying the Jews were a “deceitful race…and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” Nonetheless, his superiors in Holland allowed them to remain “provided the poor among them shall not become a burden.” Four years later, additional Jewish families traveled from Barbados to Newport, Rhode Island.

The residents of these two Jewish communities, many of whose descendants had fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, remained somewhat of an anomaly for decades. In 1700, a mere 250 Jews lived in Great Britain’s 13 American colonies, and that number increased to only about 2,000 on the eve of the Revolutionary War. Not a single rabbi was among them. As with other religious minorities, Jews faced discrimination, including colonial laws that required legislators to be Protestant Christians and prevented non-Christians from voting. But unlike in Europe, they were largely free to practice their religion in peace.

The oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, Shearith Israel, originally met in a small rented house in lower Manhattan. Then, during Passover in 1730, it consecrated America’s first known synagogue (which was later torn down to make way for a bigger one). By 1759, the Jews of Newport decided they also wanted a synagogue. After securing financial help from Shearith Israel, the Newport congregation purchased a parcel of land and employed renowned local architect Peter Harrison, who was simultaneously building a church and an open-air market. Construction on America’s second synagogue, which included 12 columns representing the 12 tribes of Israel, finished up four years later. That December 2, the Newport congregation held a dedication ceremony, with such prominent figures as future Yale President Ezra Stiles in attendance.

When the British occupied Newport during the Revolutionary War, they used the synagogue as a hospital and meetinghouse. Many Jewish residents fled the city, as did their Christian neighbors. Yet the congregation, known as Jeshuat Israel (Salvation of Israel), survived the conflict intact. In August 1790, three months after Rhode Island ratified the Constitution, President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and other high-ranking politicians visited Newport in order to drum up support for the Bill of Rights. In conjunction with that visit, Jeshuat Israel’s spiritual leader, Moses Seixas, praised Washington for his leadership on the issue of religious freedom. The president responded within a few days, echoing Seixas’ words that the government “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,” Washington added, “while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

With Newport suffering economically in the ensuing decades, Jewish residents continuously departed, and the synagogue closed down soon after the War of 1812. It did not fall into complete disrepair, however, thanks to cash infusions from the sons of its first spiritual leader, Isaac Touro. The synagogue, now called Touro Synagogue, reopened in 1883 following a new wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. It has remained active ever since, becoming a National Historic Site in 1946 and hosting an annual public reading of Washington’s letter. This year’s festivities included a keynote speech from Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. “In the early years of the Republic, every word George Washington said was addressed to the larger country,” Kagan reportedly stated. “And every aspect of that lesson resonates today as strongly as it did in 1790.”

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Categories: George Washington, Judaism, Rhode Island