I once brought my mother, Adele, to Newport on a small cruise ship. We visited the mansions and Hammersmith Farm, and I showed her the bustling shops. But when we left, what she wanted to talk about most was a modest but lovely building visited by only a fraction of the city’s tourists: Touro Synagogue.
My mother’s family was descended from the Jews of Spain, who were forced to flee during the Inquisition, in 1492. They scattered — some to Italy, others to Greece, others eventually to the Middle East. They, along with the Portuguese Jews, were the Sephardim, and my mother wore her heritage as proudly as a prized jewel.
Touro Synagogue, the nation’s oldest temple still in existence and the first religious structure designated a National Trust Historic Site, is a monument to the 15 Sephardic Jewish families who arrived in Newport in 1658. They formed the congregation of Jeshuat Israel (Salvation of Israel), and for a century they and the groups who followed them worshipped in private homes.
In time, the Jews of Newport commissioned an esteemed architect, Peter Harrison, to build their temple. He modeled Touro after the Sephardic synagogues of Amsterdam and London.
General George Washington visited Touro Synagogue in 1781. As president, during a visit to Newport in August 1790, he wrote a letter to its congregation, stating that “the Government of the United States [gives] to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance …” Now every August, Touro Synagogue honors Washington’s letter with a reading and special service.
You can see all this for yourself when you visit Touro Synagogue. It’s a living museum in the best sense, still serving an active congregation. In a city where glorious excess once ruled, a quiet yet profound feeling comes through when you step inside. Here is a place, it says, where the dream of religious tolerance gave a wandering people a home.
85 Touro St.
Local Treasure: Touro Synagogue