Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Touro Synagogue, First in Colonies, Becomes First to Win Historic Honor

October 22, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The building may look modest from the outside, but the Touro Synagogue soon will be the most famous synagogue in the United States — if it isn’t already.

Touro, in Newport, R.I., already had been recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1946, but this month it was the first religious site to be named a National Trust Historic Site.

While the Historic Landmark designation is merely an honorary award from the government, the newer title accords a number of practical benefits to the synagogue.

Completed in 1763 by descendants of Sephardic Jews who had fled the Spanish and Portugese inquisitions, Touro was the first synagogue built in the American colonies.

“The ideals that brought the founders of Touro Synagogue to Newport are manifest in this wonderful building,” said Richard Moe, president of the private, nonprofit National Trust.

This architectural jewel was designed by Peter Harrison, America’s most famous 18th-century architect. It features a simple, white and brown Georgian exterior. The building’s interior contains a balcony supported by twelve Ionic columns, representing the tribes of ancient Israel and each made from a single tree. Five massive brass candelabra hang from the ceiling.

Because it was a haven for Jews fleeing religious persecution, Touro is seen as a symbol of religious freedom in the United States — a status recognized in a 1790 letter from George Washington assuring the congregants religious tolerance. The fledgling nation would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” Washington promised.

“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, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid,” Washington wrote.

The National Trust’s decision to add Touro to its list of sites came at a particularly critical moment because of the religious tensions that followed the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Moe said.

“There has never been a more important time in American history to celebrate the religious freedom that makes our country so unique,” he said.

The members of the committee that selects sites had been looking to add a religious site to their roster for some time, said James Vaughan, the trust’s vice president of stewardship of historic sites.

They hope to add a church at some point, Vaughan said, but they chose Touro as the first religious site because the synagogue “has for so long been a symbol of American religious freedom.”

Touro’s selection will benefit not just the trust, but also the synagogue.

“It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement,” said Jane Sprague, executive director of the Society of Friends of Touro Synagogue. This will be especially true in a few years when renovations to the synagogue begin.

“We will be able to use their architects, archaeologists and collections managers to make sure our restoration is done properly and in a lasting fashion,” she said.

The National Trust’s marketing and site management experts also will help Touro with its educational programs.

“We are about to embark on a revamping and expansion of how we interpret the synagogue to our visitors,” Sprague said. “We don’t have the internal staff to help us develop this.

“Being a part of their collection” means that “more and more people will learn the story of Touro Synagogue and the religious liberty that it stands for,” she explained.

Touro is the only surviving synagogue from the colonial era. While the building is more than 200 years old, the congregation is even older, dating from 1658.

The British occupation of Newport in 1776 caused all but seven of the city’s Jews to leave, and the synagogue closed. During the 1780s the building hosted the Rhode Island General Assembly and the state Supreme Court, and Washington came to visit in 1781.

When Abraham Touro, son of the synagogue’s original rabbi, died in 1822, he left money to preserve the building in hopes that it would be reopened.

By the 1890s, the congregation again had grown and the building was reopened after significant restoration, one of the earliest preservation efforts in America.

The Orthodox synagogue still has an active congregation of more than 100 families. True to the synagogue’s Iberian origins, the congregation uses Sephardic liturgy.

The synagogue holds regular Shabbat Services and offers religious instruction for children. When services are not being held, the synagogue offers daily guided tours and other educational programs.

Recommended from JTA