The Cradle of American Judaism

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.)



Washington and the Jews

George WashingtonOn August 17, 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island on a goodwill tour celebrating the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. While he was there, he was given a letter from the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport,” written by the warden of the congregation, Moses Seixas. The letter expressed the hopes and dreams of the Jews of Newport for a true home in which they need not fear religious persecution.

President Washington answered the letter with a gracious letter of his own which marked a milestone in the American separation of church and state. In Europe, Jews had been outsiders, unwelcome and at best tolerated, and they did not hold citizenship.

Washington wrote:

…The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were 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.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

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…

There would be severe challenges ahead to this liberal doctrine. (if you are wondering about that, Google “General Order No. 11” or watch the film Gentlemen’s Agreement.) But it set a tone and an expectation quite different from that in other western nations. Jews were to be part of America, not a separate and despised class of foreigners.