Image: Touro Synagogue, taken from the visitor center. (Photo: R. Ruth Adar)
I spent today visiting a holy place, Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. It is the cradle of American Jewish history.
The Newport community of Jews was not the first congregation in what would come to be the United States. That honor goes to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, established in 1654 by Sephardic Jews fleeing the arrival of the Inquisition in Recife, Brazil. In the mid 1600’s, another group of Jews, this time from Barbados, arrived in Newport, drawn by business opportunity and perhaps by the Rhode Island Royal Charter, which promised that no resident could be “molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion.”
At first they gathered in each others’ homes for worship. They called their congregation Nephuse Israel meaning Scattered of Israel.
The Jews thrived in Newport. They were successful in business and respected by their neighbors. Their first purchase as a community was land for a cemetery, high on a hill above the town. The original Jews of Newport still rest there.
In 1758 they felt secure enough in Newport that they changed the name of the community to Jeshuat Israel, meaning Salvation of Israel, and they broke ground for a synagogue building in a prominent spot above the long wharf where their ships landed. Everything about the new building was unapologetic and elegant, Jewish and American.
Why do I call this synagogue the cradle of American Judaism? I call it that because these Jews had a unique role in making the United States different from any other place that we had lived up to that point. These Rhode Island Jews were party to the state’s insistence on holding out on the U.S. Constitution until freedom of religion was insured via the Bill of Rights. Their leader, Moses Seixas, took the occasion of a visit from President Washington to present a letter congratulating him, and reminding him subtly of the importance of religious freedom; Washington answered with his Letter to Touro Synagogue in which he expressed his agreement. Soon after, in the Bill of Rights, the separation of church and state would be established forever as the law of the land.
At a time when the Jews of Europe still lacked the most basic status of citizenship, and the Jews of Arab lands were officially second-class citizens, the Jews of the United States had a home and citizenship. They were wanderers no more.
In this imperfect but promising land, new kinds of Judaism would take root and grow.
This is why Touro Synagogue is for me a holy place.
(I will write more about the building in a future post.)