During Newport, Rhode Island’s month-long Christmas festival thousands of clear lights shine in shop windows and homes. If you visit, take a moment to appreciate the elegant Georgian building downtown that hangs no lights from its eaves. It’s Touro Synagogue, the oldest existing temple in America, and a testament to Rhode Island’s greatest gift to this country: freedom of religion.
The Puritans who founded Boston fled England to avoid persecution, but they sought religious freedom only to be free to persecute others. Roger Williams, a dissident among dissidents, pointed out this hypocrisy and was soon banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He traveled south and founded Providence, the first English settlement in the future colony of Rhode Island, as a place where people of all religions could practice openly.
The extent of this tolerance was tested in 1658, when a ship pulled into Newport Harbor carrying neither the Quakers nor the Anabaptists to whom Williams was accustomed, but 15 families of Sephardic Jews from Barbados. But Williams truly meant “all religions,” and the tiny community was welcomed. During the next century, new groups arrived, and in 1759-1763 they erected Touro Synagogue. President George Washington came to Newport in 1790 while campaigning for the Bill of Rights, which embraces Williams’s great experiment as a pillar of our democracy. In a letter to Touro’s congregation, Washington praised them and assured them that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Still an active synagogue, Touro welcomes visitors to come and reflect on that moment when, by giving a home to those 15 Jewish families, Newport put America on the path to becoming a place where all faiths may celebrate as proudly and as brightly as they please.
85 Touro St.
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