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Touring Touro

December 23, 2010 By:
George Medovoy, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Newport's Touro Synagogue -- a living example of America's colonial past -- greets today's visitors on the edge of a grassy knoll honoring early Jewish patriots.

Officially known as Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, it is the oldest functioning synagogue in the United States.

And staying at the historic Cleveland House bed and breakfast(www.innsofnewport.com) on Clarke Street, one of Newport's oldest streets, put us in the very same neighborhood where colonials had once lived, and also meant that we could easily walk to the historic Orthodox synagogue for a docent-led morning introduction and Friday-night services conducted by Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz.

Clarke Street is also close to the boutiques and restaurants on busy Thames Street and the harbor area when you want a touch of more modern Newport.

By the way, the Inns of Newport also operates two other inns on Clarke Street, the Admiral Farragut and the Clarkeston. It was in the Farragut that French General Rochambeau housed two of his aides-de-camp when France was helping America fight the British.

Both the Clarkeston and the Admiral Farragut serve a full, cooked-to-order breakfast, which is also an option for guests of the Cleveland House.

But back to history.

Newport's original Spanish Jews -- 15 families in all -- arrived in Newport from Barbados in 1658 as one of many surviving remnants of the Inquisition. Under Roger Williams, the Rhode Island colony stood for religious tolerance, and Jews were now free to live openly among their Quaker and Protestant neighbors.

In such an environment, the Jewish men had themselves circumcised, husbands and wives remarried in Jewish ceremonies, and Christian names were changed to Hebrew ones.

One of the other tasks was to build a synagogue, and for this, they hired the Yorkshire-born architect and Quaker, Peter Harrison. It fell to Isaac Touro, a 19-year-old rabbinical student who became their religious leader, to describe the great Amsterdam synagogue as their model, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The brilliant Harrison had also designed Newport's Redwood Library and Athenaeum, the oldest public lending library in the United States.

In his design for Touro, he used symmetry, balance and proportion, illuminated by rays of sunlight streaming through large windows. The synagogue's Sephardic style has a bimah in the center and a balcony for women's seating.

Dedication of the new synagogue was during Chanukah of 1763, with many non-Jews in attendance, including Ezra Stiles, who was minister of Newport's Second Congregational Church and president of Yale, in addition to being Touro's close friend.

A Deer-Skin Torah

During the Revolutionary War, the British occupied Newport and destroyed much of the city, but the synagogue was saved, ironically enough, because it was offered to the British for use as a hospital.

At the synagogue, a docent showed us a deer-skin Torah -- now protected behind glass -- which pre-dates the Inquisition and is open to the crossing of the Red Sea, a remarkable reference to Jewish freedom in America.

After the war, George Washington paid a visit to Newport, where Moses Mendes Seixas, warden and leader of the Jewish community, expressed the hope for continued religious freedom under the new American government.

Washington replied with his now-famous letter, in which he promised that the young nation would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

I must admit, it wasn't all that easy to follow the prayers, as my mind kept wandering off into history, imagining that colonial Jews had sat in this very place.

After our visit to Touro, we took a self-guided tour of colonial Jewish history at the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Visitor Center next to Patriot's Park, which honors early American Jewish patriots.

Then, from the visitor center, we walked up to the corner of Zion Place and Bellevue Avenue to see the Colonial Jewish Cemetery of New England, where some of Newport's early Jews are buried.

An interesting side note: In 1852, while on a family vacation, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited the cemetery and wrote "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" for Putnam's Monthlymagazine.

The cemetery was closed to the public, but we could peer through the iron gates at the memorial monuments to Newport's early Jews.

For more information, go to: www.tourosynagogue.org.

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