You can’t study the history of Rhode Island without coming across the famous “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation” and George Washington’s passionate plea for more than mere tolerance for minorities and the granting of universal citizenship for all.
Now there is a new book that helps to explain why that letter held such power and hope for the Jewish community in Newport and for Jews all over the world. Author Melvin I. Urofsky has gathered all of the documents and history to create a vivid picture of what complete uncertainty Jews lived under before the founding of the United States.
Urofsky’s book starts with the arrival of the first Jewish settlers at Newport:
In 1658, the small but growing colony at Newport, R.I. received its first Jewish residents. The 15 families came from Barbados, where a Jewish community had existed since the 1620s. They were of Spanish and Portuguese origin and uncertainty and bigotry had driven them from one country to another for centuries. In Europe, they were confined to ghettos and not allowed to own real estate. Their very existence frequently hinged on the whim of a king or the prejudice of an established church. The families who came to Newport had migrated from Amsterdam and London to Brazil and then the islands of Suriname, Barbados, Curaçao and Jamaica.
It seemed that just as soon as opportunity allowed Jews to prosper, some political change would send them packing, hoping for a friendlier place to live. Newport seemed to be that place. But that wasn’t necessarily by design. In spite of Roger Williams’ insistence on freedom of conscience in his new colony, he really only had Christians in mind.
Urofsky describes some of the legal and political squabbles that affected Jewish life in the colony.
“Ironically, while Rhode Island would not allow Lopez or Elizer to be naturalized within the state, it did recognize their status as naturalized citizens of the British Empire,” he wrote, and when a government action favored the Jews in general, it met with disfavor in Rhode Island.
“The Rev. Ezra Stiles claimed that many Rhode Islanders could not reconcile themselves to the generous provisions of the act. ‘The opposition it has met with in Rh. Island,’ he wrote, ‘forbodes that the Jews will never become incorporated with the people of America, any more than in Europe Asia and Africa,’”
Actually, they did do well in Rhode Island but not necessarily because Rhode Islanders wanted it that way. Urofsky shows us how the Jews succeeded in spite of the almost universal anti-Semitism of the time.
Through the early and middle 1700s, Newport grew wealthy and important, taking a leading role in the shipping and mercantile trades of the colonies. By 1758, the Jewish population had grown so sufficiently that there was need for a larger, permanent gathering place and a house of worship. The Congregation accepted the offer of Newport resident Peter Harrison, who volunteered to design a new building to house the 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 building of Newport’s Redwood Library and King’s Chapel in Boston. Construction began on the “Jews Synagogue” in 1759. At the same time, Harrison was also building Christ Church in Cambridge, Mass. and the Brick Market in Newport, completed in 1762.
Third synagogue in Newport
Harrison’s design was for the third synagogue in Newport. Their first building was constructed in 1703 and their second building had been dedicated in 1732. Jewish communities throughout America’s mid-Atlantic region and in the Caribbean were closely tied to Newport’s Jewish citizens through family and business interests. According to Urofsky, generous financial support also came for the new building in Rhode Island from both of these congregations and from the Jewish communities in London, Jamaica and Suriname.
For the building’s exterior, Harrison drew on his knowledge of and enthusiasm for Palladian architecture. He is credited with being one of the first to bring this popular European architectural style to the American colonies.
“For the interior, his best references came directly from the members of the congregation, notably, the Hazzan [prayer leader], Isaac Touro, who had only recently arrived from Amsterdam. The Newport building was completed in 1763 and was dedicated during the Chanukah festival celebrations on December 2nd of that year.”
Urofsky’s account describes the dedication ceremony as a regional celebration attended by clergy and other dignitaries from around the colony, including Congregationalist Minister Ezra Stiles, who prophesized the doom of Jews in the New World and later became the president of Yale University.
“His diaries have proven a treasure trove of information on Newport, the Rhode Island colony, and the Jewish community of the mid-eighteenth century,” said Urofsky.
At the beginning of the American Revolution, the British occupied Newport and many Jewish residents fled, removing their families and businesses to Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.
“Remaining behind was Isaac Touro, who kept watch over the synagogue as it became a hospital for the British military and 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 kept it from the same fate.”
In 1779 the British evacuated Newport and many of the Jewish families returned to take up their businesses again. In 1790, three months after Rhode Island had joined the United States by ratifying the Constitution, George Washington chose to visit Newport for a public appearance to rally support for the new Bill of Rights.
“As part of the welcoming ceremonies for the President of the United States, Moses Mendes Seixas, then president of Congregation Yeshuat Israel, was one of the community leaders given the honor of addressing Washington. In his letter of welcome, Seixas chose to raise the issues of religious liberties and the separation of church and state. Washington’s response, quoting Seixas’ thoughts, has come down to us as a key policy statement of the new government in support of First Amendment rights.”
Although many people knew of the letter, fewer people know that the Jewish population of Newport was greatly diminished by then. Urofsky said about 100 people, so the letter becomes more than just a politically motivated courtesy; a statement of principle that reflects the high regard our founding fathers had. They had evolved beyond the “Christian commonwealth” of Roger Williams to embrace more than tolerance and actual protection for religious minorities.
So, the Touro Synagogue is now as much a national shrine as a house of worship. Just how the modestly sized building managed to survive is the part of the book that most historians should be interested in. It is a sort of blueprint about how to go about saving a landmark before everybody knows it is a national treasure. The name Touro has a lot to do with that.
“In 1820, 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, which runs from the cemetery down the hill to the synagogue building. As a result of his generosity, the street was named “Touro Street.” 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 had seen to the replacement of the wall his brother Abraham had built 30 years prior, which was in disrepair. The brick was replaced with granite and wrought iron.
“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 toward the ministry and maintenance of the synagogue, $3,000 toward 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. Both brothers, Abraham and Judah Touro, are hailed as amongst the first great American philanthropists.”
In 1881, the “new” Jewish community of Newport re-opened the town’s synagogue for services and appointed a permanent rabbi. A lease amount of $1 per year is still paid by the current Newport congregation to Congregation Shearith Israel for use of the building and grounds, which are still owned by the New York group.
In 1946, Touro Synagogue, as it is now known, was designated a National Historic Site. The Friends of Touro Synagogue (now the Touro Synagogue Foundation) was established two years later for the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings and grounds. Each year, the Touro Foundation sponsors an educational lecture series and holds a public reading of the George Washington letter as a celebration and pronouncement of religious freedom. The synagogue remains an active house of worship and is also toured by thousands of visitors every year.
Former ambassador to Denmark and key supporter of the Loeb Visitors’ Center at the synagogue John L. Loeb Jr. wrote a letter to introduce the new book, formally titled “A Genesis of Religious Freedom: The Story of the Jews of Newport and Touro Synagogue.” Loeb, who traces his genealogy back to the original Jewish settlers of America, described a night at the movies in 1945 at his boarding school. Newsreels of concentration camps in Europe bring cheers from the sons of privilege in the audience, not for the liberation but for the pictures of the victims.
“We don’t like Hitler,” a classmate explains to the 15-year-old Loeb, “but at least he’s killed the Jews.”
The experience spurred Loeb on a lifelong quest to understand prejudice and eventually led him to the letter from Washington.
“This letter of our first president has had a transformative impact on my thinking and my life. In the sentence that means the most to me Washington says:
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
In short, according to Loeb, the young country was guaranteeing freedom of religion, not granting it “—indeed, the right not to worship at all!”