Important Lessons of the Touro Synagogue

This week, I depart from discussing the weekly Torah portion in order to share some thoughts on our history as American Jews.  This departure is prompted by my recent visits to Recife, Brazil and to synagogues in Barbados and Newport, Rhode Island.   

The latter location, the Touro Synagogue, is the oldest surviving synagogue in America and the only one extant from the colonial era.  (The first synagogue in the colonies, dedicated in 1730, was built by Congregation Shearith Israel in New York).  The Touro Synagogue it is not just an important Jewish landmark, but an enduring symbol of freedom of conscience. 

How colonial America treated its religious minorities was of vital interest to Jews and others seeking religious tolerance.  Such was certainly not to be found among the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  But not far away in Rhode Island, Roger Williams  -- who had been banished from Massachusetts for his heretical views – established a haven for dissenters.  Word of this special place reached Jews in Barbados, who had escaped the Spanish Inquisition in Recife, and they decided to immigrate.  They arrived in Newport about 1658.    

Five years later, Williams and other prominent colonists obtained a charter from the King of England expressly authorizing a “lively experiment” separating civic from religious life, and allowing freedom of conscience.

A century later, in about 1760, the Jewish community of Newport hired a Chazzan (Cantor) from Amsterdam -- no rabbi having accepted their job invitation – named Isaac Touro.   Newport was already prosperous thanks in part to its excellent harbor but also in part due to its acceptance of Jewish merchants (Rhode Island tested the British Navigation Acts, which forbid foreigners from conducting international trade).  The Jewish community they retained a prominent architect and built a synagogue that was completed in 1763.  Funds were contributed by Jewish communities in New York, London, Surinam, and the Caribbean.  Its dedication was a regional event, attended by many clergy, including Congregationalist Minister Ezra Stiles, later President of Yale. 

Soon thereafter, during the Revolutionary War, with half the population of Newport having left, the Jewish community offered the building to the occupying British as a hospital and public meeting place.  This likely saved it from the fate of many churches, which were dismantled for firewood during three particularly cold winters. 

In 1790, following a visit to the synagogue by George Washington, the Jewish community received his famous “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island,” assuring them that, under the new federal government: 

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.  For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. 

Washington closed his letter by echoing the biblical phrases that the leader of the Touro synagogue, Moses Seixas, had included in his welcoming letter to Washington: 

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. 

A visit to the Touro Synagogue is inspiring.  It is an example of why we can be justly proud of the contribution that Jews have played to American history.  It is also an important reminder that, just as our predecessors, we, and our children and grandchildren have benefitted from religious tolerance, so must we speak out and work to ensure that liberty of conscience is fully preserved in our time and in the future for all other Americans.  

Shabbat shalom!    

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3