This day in Jewish history / Dedication of the oldest synagogue in the U.S.

On this day in 1763, one of the United States' oldest congregations dedicated the country's first synagogue building in Newport, Rhode Island, a building still in use today.

Gilbert Stuart's painting of George Washington.
In a letter to the president of the Touro synagogue in Newport, George Washington famously wrote that the U.S. government “gives... / Photo by Forward
By David B. Green
Published 08:39 02.12.12

On December 2, 1763, the building now known as the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, was dedicated. Touro, which is the oldest synagogue building in the United States, was built to serve the Jeshuat Israel congregation, which was established by 15 Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families  who arrived in Newport from Barbados in 1658. (The families made their way, after the Inquisition, to London and Amsterdam, then to Brazil in the New World, and finally to a number of islands in the Caribbean, including Barbados.)

During its first century, the congregation would meet in members’ homes, although members established a cemetery in 1677. By 1758, Newport had become an important seaport and trading town, and the Jewish population had grown enough that they needed a permanent structure to pray in. Peter Harrison, a self-trained Newport architect, offered to design a home for the congregation.

For the exterior of the building, Harrison adopted the style of Palladian architecture, with its origins in Venice, and for the interior needs, he was fortunate that synagogue members had close contact with the few other synagogues, also Sephardi, in the colonies, which provided both financial and technical assistance for the construction. Another source of design advice was the synagogue’s cantor, Isaac Touro, who had recently arrived from Amsterdam. The new building was dedicated during Hanukkah of 1763.

In 1790, the synagogue’s president, Moses Mendel Seixas, welcomed President George Washington, who had come to Newport to seek support for the Bill of Rights of the new U.S. Constitution. Washington responded to Seixas’ comments, which addressed issues of freedom of religion and separation of church and state, in a letter in which he stressed that the U.S. government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and offered his best wishes for safety and acceptance to the “Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this country.”

In general, though, Newport’s fortunes took a downturn in the century following independence, as other larger ports overtook it and Rhode Island moved its capital to Providence. Most of the town’s Jewish families moved away, and Touro Synagogue fell into disuse.

The remaining members of the congregation locked its doors, and turned the deed of the building over to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the nation’s oldest congregation.

Nonetheless, even those Jeshuat Israel members who had relocated continued to have their bodies returned to Newport for interment at the Touro burial grounds. A large endowment for the upkeep of the cemetery was received from Abraham Touro, the son of Isaac Touro, in 1822, and it was around this time that the building began to be called by the family name. (An additional bequest came from Abraham’s brother, Jacob Touro, who died in 1854.)

By 1881, the influx of eastern European Jews to the United States had brought enough new residents to Newport that Touro Synagogue was able to reopen. To this day, however, Shearith Israel still technically owns the building and grounds of the synagogue, and receives a symbolic payment of $1 a year. After some years of financial crisis in the recent past, the synagogue today has some 140 member families, and weekly services – Orthodox, Sephardi style – on Shabbat. It is a recognized National Historic Site, and in 2009, opened a visitors center to accommodate the many tourists who come to visit.