House of Worship

At Touro Synagogue, the Jewish story is the American story.

By Ethan Gilsdorf

It's practically a cliché for a tourist site to claim “George Washington slept here” as a way to establish historical street cred. In the case of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, Washington didn’t actually spend the night, but his connection to the synagogue was more than plaque-worthy. At a crucial moment, Washington lent his support to Newport’s nascent Jewish community, a gesture that feels all the more poignant today, given how few people even know that Jews were among this nation’s earliest settlers.

Before the American Revolution, the synagogue was the hub of Rhode Island’s Jewish community. But the war brought hardship. First, British forces occupied the city and converted the synagogue into a hospital. Later, France used Newport as its base of operations, and Jewish families fled the city. The synagogue was used variously as a state house, courthouse, and city hall. When General Washington came to Newport in 1781 to make battle plans with Generals Lafayette and Rochambeau, he visited the synagogue for a town meeting, not a religious service.

After the war ended, the Jewish community returned to Newport, and the synagogue was again occupied by its congregation. Here’s where Washington reappears. It’s 1790, and the U.S. Constitution has been ratified. But the Bill of Rights—in particular, the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—has yet to become law. Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other politicos hit the road to persuade reluctant states to vote for the first ten amendments.

In Newport, Washington’s entourage is greeted by civic and religious leaders, among them Moses Seixas, warden of the synagogue, who wants to know how the new government will treat Jews. Washington writes a letter to “the Hebrew Congregation in Newport” a few days later, promising that the United States would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” and that any group hoping to enjoy “the exercise of their inherent natural rights" would no longer be at the whim of an individual leader or “the indulgence of one class of people.”

So a full year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, Washington expressed a commitment to religious liberty and civil rights. His letter may have been addressed to American Jews, but it also helped secure freedom of religious expression for groups like Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Quakers.

Of course, the Jewish road to tolerance was particularly rough. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were kicked out of Spain in the late 15th century. Those who had settled in the Dutch West Indies were expelled again in the 1650s. Where to wander next? Some went to New Amsterdam. Others learned of a place called Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

“Rhode Island was founded on religious freedom,” says Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz, who heads the synagogue and occasionally leads the Sunday afternoon tours of the synagogue. “The word got out.”

First to come: a group of 15 Jewish families from Barbados, who arrived in Newport in 1658. The community flourished. A century later, Isaac Touro was sent from Amsterdam to lead the Jewish outpost. A year after that, the congregation began to build its synagogue to house between 20 and 30 families; it would face east, toward Jerusalem.

Although many old synagogues are tucked away on hidden alleyways, Touro chose a hilltop site in the town center. Why? According to Bea Ross, the congregation’s co-president, this proved that the Jewish community felt accepted in Newport. Ross called the structure's design—12 pillars holding up a Georgian “classic Colonial"—the “perfect combination of restraint and exuberance.” Electrical wiring has since been installed; otherwise, the synagogue, its paint scheme, and its furnishings, such as the menorah and candle holders, remain as they were in the late 18th century. Among its oldest treasures is a 500-year-old torah printed on deerskin, smuggled out of Spain and now displayed behind glass.

Nearly 250 years after opening its doors in 1763, Touro Synagogue remains the oldest synagogue in America and a national shrine for prayer. Reform Jews sit next to Hassidic Jews. Even Christian worshippers come. “Any sinners among you?” asked Rabbi Eskovitz, poking fun at a group of latecomers during a Sunday afternoon tour. “Only people who have committed many sins have to come on time.”

The synagogue became a national historic site in 1946. Today it’s operated by the Touro Synagogue Foundation, in partnership with the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Save America’s Treasures. The building attracts some 30,000 visitors per year—from history buffs to architecture students to those seeking spiritual connection. But the synagogue is no dusty museum; Congregation Jeshuat Israel is based here. “It's not faked,” says Ross of the daily services, weddings, and bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs that take place here. “These aren’t re-enactments.” Being a true working house of worship makes Touro Synagogue even more of a historical attraction.

Over Passover weekend, Elaine Wasekanes visited with her husband and two sons from Norwood, Pennsylvania. Her family is Jewish, she said, and she had seen the synagogue years before. “I wanted my sons to see this part of Jewish history.”

Here, the Jewish story is the American story. “We're part of a long chain of American history,” said Rabbi Eskovitz. "People come here. They're looking for a living symbol.”

At Touro Synagogue, they'll find it.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks and a freelance contributor to The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Christian Science Monitor.

This article appears in the Summer 2010 issue.

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