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History Behind Touro Synagogue

May 10, 2012 By:
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Courtesy of The George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. All rights reserved

Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I. has been forever linked in Jewish history with President George Washington's famous 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport -- which will soon be on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia as part of a special exhibition. 

But as much as the letter itself, Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue building still standing in the country, where Washington's words may have been read aloud, has its own colorful history.

When the building was completed in 1762, about 100 years after the first Jews arrived in the city, the Sephardic synagogue was known as Jeshuat Israel, or simply the Hebrew Congregation of Newport.

According to Michael Feldberg, a historian who serves as director of the George Washington Institute of Religious Freedom, which operates the visitor's center at Touro, the Revolutionary War proved devastating to the city. For a time during the conflict, the synagogue building functioned as a military hospital.

Before the war, there were at most about 300 Jews in the city, according to Feldberg. By the time Washington made his famous visit to the building in August of 1790, and composed the letter that would come to symbolize religious freedom, the Jewish population of the city had declined dramatically.

There's some historical dispute as to whether Washington actually wrote the letter himself, said Feldberg. Some scholars have theorized that his personal secretary may have written it. Others have suggested that the text may have been authored by then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who traveled with Washington on the visit to Rhode Island.

Either way, said Feldberg, there's no doubt the first president signed the letter and gave it his full backing.

A thriving port before the war, the city never really regained its status in the decades that followed. With economic opportunities limited, and Jews still facing a fair amount of anti-Semitism -- including being denied the right to vote until 1820 -- the Jewish population dwindled. The synagogue closed in 1823.

At the time, the building was owned by several members, who ultimately decided to sell it to Congregation Shearith Israel, or the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, in New York, which has owned the building ever since then.

(Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia established itself as a congregation in the 1740s, but its first building, no longer standing, was opened in 1782.)

Financier Abraham Touro, oldest son of the shul's first cantor, Isaac Touro -- and namesake of Touro College in New York -- left money to the city to care for the abandoned property and the adjacent Jewish cemetery. Sometime in the middle of the 19th century, government officials began referring to the site as Touro's synagogue and eventually the name Touro Synagogue stuck, said Feldberg.

With the wave of Eastern European immigrants in the 1880s, Jews began to return to Newport. Initially, the fledgling Jewish community's efforts to use the site were rebuffed by Shearith Israel and the matter even went to court, but it was ultimately settled, said Feldberg.

A new Orthodox congregation, also known as Jeshuat Israel, was formed. It rents the building from Shearith Israel for $1 a year.

In 1947, the federal government declared Touro Synagogue a historic site and a foundation was formed to help pay for the upkeep. In 2009, the Ambassador John L. Loeb Visitors Center opened, offering context and explanation of the synagogue's history and the Washington letter's role in the development of religious freedom in the United States.

Though the original Washington letter has never been shown there, the visitor's center did get permission to use a digital image of the letter from its owner, Richard Morgenstern.

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