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Virtual Jewish World: Newport, Rhode Island

Newport is a city in Rhode Island, located at the southern tip of Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay. Founded in 1639 by religious dissenters from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Roger Williams, also an outcast from the Puritans' dominion, had founded Providence, at the head of Narragansett Bay, three years earlier. Newport became the first of five rotating capitals in a state still known officially as Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

In 1658, approximately 15 Jews from Barbados settled in Newport. The Jewish cemetery, consecrated in 1677, was the subject of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem published in 1854. Jews Street was identified in John Mumford's map drawn in 1712.

Newport's Jewish community was reestablished during the 1740s, when settlers arrived primarily from New York City. Several Jewish merchants flourished through trade with American ports, the West Indies, England, and West Africa. By far the most successful was Aaron Lopez, who emigrated from Portugal in 1752. He gained renown as a merchant, shipper, and manufacturer.

Congregation Yeshuat Yisrael (Salvation of Israel) was established in 1756, and land for a synagogue was purchased three years later. Peter Harrison, a Newporter and one of the colonies' most distinguished architects, designed an exquisite two-story brick building with a central bimah based on prototypes in Amsterdam and London. It accommodated approximately 30 Jewish households or 200 people, less than two percent of the town's population. Ezra Stiles, the Congregational minister who became president of Yale College, documented the synagogue's dedication in 1763 as well as other aspects of Jewish communal life. In 1773, Ḥayyim Caregal, a rabbi from Hebron in the Holy Land, preached in Newport. When it appeared in the Newport Mercury, his was the first Jewish sermon published in North America.

During the Revolution, Newport's Jews were loyalists and patriots. Most fled the lengthy British occupation.

In 1781, President George Washington visited the synagogue when it housed Rhode Island's General Assembly and Supreme Court. When he returned to Newport on August 17, 1790, Washington received a congratulatory letter from the Hebrew congregation, written by ḥazzan Moses Seixas, a fellow Mason. Washington's reply, perhaps America's most important expression of religious liberty, proclaimed "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 discern themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support." The statement reflected the language of the invitation to Washington, but it help set the tone for religious liberty in the United States.

As Newport's economy continued to decline, however, Jews sought opportunities elsewhere. In 1822, Moses Lopez, the last Jew, departed for New York City.

The first reference to Touro Synagogue occurred in 1824, when the nearby street, originally known as Griffin, was renamed Touro. Two years earlier, Abraham Touro provided funds to maintain the synagogue in memory of his father, Isaac, who had been the congregation's first ḥazzan. In 1854, the magnanimous bequest by Abraham's unmarried brother Judah, of New Orleans, provided for the perpetual care of the synagogue and cemetery. Keith Stokes, a business leader and historian currently living in Newport, is a sixth-generation descendant of Judah Touro and his free African-American mistress, Ellen Wilson.

Although the synagogue reopened for summer visitors, it was not reconsecrated until 1883, when Rabbi Abraham Mendes arrived. Its ownership, retained by the founding families, was transferred to New York City's Shearith Israel in 1894. Though there were fewer than 100 Jewish families in Newport, two groups vied for Touro's use. An agreement reached in 1903 permitted Shearith Israel to lease the building to an Orthodox congregation of its choice and participate in the selection of a rabbi. The congregation's longest-serving clergy, beginning in the 1940s, were Cantor Ely Katz and Rabbi Theodore Lewis.

A second Orthodox congregation, Ahavas Achim, which existed from 1915 until 1981, participated in a United Hebrew School. In 1919 a YMHA was established, and in 1926 a historic house was moved to a site opposite Touro for use as a community center.

In 1946, largely through the efforts of Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, the synagogue was one of the first buildings designated a National Historic Site by the Interior Department. Though it was America's oldest surviving synagogue, Touro's recognition derived from the building's association with George Washington and its design by Peter Harrison. In 1982, Washington's 250th birthday was commemorated with a postage stamp showing Touro and quoting the "to bigotry no sanction" passage from his letter.

Touro's Society of Friends, which restored and helps maintain the building, has emphasized the synagogue's importance as a symbol of religious liberty. The reading of the Seixas and Washington letters has become an annual tradition. Numerous dignitaries have participated, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Patriots' Park was built adjacent to the synagogue, and a visitors' center is planned.

Newport has been home to two of America's most successful summer music series. The Jazz Festival began in 1954, and the Folk Festival followed five years later. Both have featured numerous Jewish performers, and both have been produced by George Wein, a Jewish impresario.

In 2002, the Jewish population of Newport County was about 1,000. Rabbi Marc Jagolinzer was the long-time leader of Temple Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Middletown, which built its synagogue in 1978.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

S.F. Chyet, Lopez of Newport: Colonial American Merchant Prince (1970); G.M. Goodwin and E. Smith (eds.), The Jews of Rhode Island (2004).