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A Tour of Touro Synagogue

The oldest synagogue on the continent tells a story of America

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Nestled into the heart of Newport’s Old Quarter, Touro Synagogue is, like many of its neighbors, a centuries-old architectural gem, but its distinctive role in both Jewish and American history is one to be celebrated. “We share it with the whole world,” says Rabbi Marc Mandel of the synagogue, best known for being the oldest in North America and the only synagogue from the Colonial period still standing. But Touro Synagogue is as much an American story as it is an international one.

As docent Lew Keen explains, the congregation’s origins date back to the 1490s, when during the Spanish Inquisition, practicing Jews throughout Spain and Portugal were forced to convert to Catholicism or be expelled. Leaving their lives and worldly possessions behind, many fled to Amsterdam, which was aggressively exploring or conquering new lands. Among them was Brazil, where many Jewish merchants set up new businesses that flourished until the Portuguese recaptured the colony from the Dutch. Soon after, 23 Jewish families fled to New Amsterdam (today’s New York City) where Dutch director-general Peter Stuyvesant, who rejected religious freedom and banned the building of a synagogue, made Jewish life difficult. So the second wave of refugees from Brazil, 15 families in total, made their way to Newport. In 1677, they bought land to serve as a burial ground where it remains today at the corner of Touro Street and Bellevue Avenue. Around 100 years later, a synagogue was built, dedicated on the first night of Hanukkah in 1763, and the very same menorah where the first candle was lit can be seen by visitors on a tour of this historic and sacred property.

The synagogue’s unique place in history is “something I think about every day of my life,” says Rabbi Mandel, who came to Touro Synagogue from Beverly Hills in 2012. “There’s a special feeling when you walk in.” Designed by prominent British-American architect Peter Harrison (who also designed Redwood Library & Athenaeum and the Brick Market nearby), Touro Synagogue reflects traditional Georgian style with an ornate interior including twelve Corinthian columns symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel made from individual solid tree trunks. Keen explains on the tour that the columns are capped by elaborate ionic capitals on the first floor, while the columns on the second floor, home to the traditional women’s gallery, are capped with Corinthian ones. There’s also a regal balustrade lining the women's gallery and another surrounding the bima – the raised focal point of the synagogue sanctuary. Nearby is the ark, built on the eastern wall facing Jerusalem, site of the first temple. Inside are five Torah scrolls; the books of Moses. A sixth scroll is on display for visitors to see. It was gifted to the congregation for the dedication by the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam and is more than 500 years old.

Arguably the most legendary architectural element, however, is the trap door located in the floor of the bima. “That always comes up,” Rabbi Mandel says with a laugh, noting that Harrison did not leave any notes about the trap door behind. “We don’t know much about the reasons and that makes it so fascinating. I think a lot of Touro docents feel it’s symbolic.” Keen says you can look at it two ways: first, the door leads to a practical space for storage; and second, that it serves as a reminder of the congregation’s roots and history, to remind people where they came from.

Another out-of-the-ordinary design element is the seat of honor, which notably breaks up the symmetry of the room. Built for the president of the congregation to worship, three American presidents have sat in the seat of honor: Kennedy (who married Jacqueline Bouvier just down the street at St. Mary’s Catholic Church); Eisenhower (whose “summer White House” can be seen at Fort Adams State Park); and Washington, whose name has become synonymous with Touro Synagogue itself.

In 1790, President Washington visited Newport and among his many letters of welcome was one from Moses Seixas, an official at Touro Synagogue. Days after his departure, Washington penned what is forevermore known as the “Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island.” In it, Washington reaffirms two fundamental tenets of American democracy: the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion. Every August, the George Washington Letter Celebration unfolds at the synagogue. Distinguished guests have included Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. A photograph of the original letter can be found at the Loeb Visitors Center on the Touro Synagogue campus.

“In the last couple of years we’ve had people join the synagogue mostly because of the meaning and significance of the George Washington letter,” says Rabbi Mandel. “There are a lot of people who feel the letter speaks to them and they feel they want to contribute; to be a part of George Washington’s themes and declarations – his vision for what America was.”

Today, there are more than 100 families within the congregation. “We are an active, vibrant community with a Hebrew school,” explains Rabbi Mandel. “We’re continuing in the steps of our founders.”

Winter tours of Touro Synagogue (November 4 through December 31) are given on Sundays only from 11am to 1:30pm starting every half hour. Tour schedule may vary due to Jewish holidays, ceremonial occasions, and special events.