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"From Haven to Home": Newport's Jeshuat Israel (Touro) Synagogue

Touro Synagogue, circa 1910

Designed by noted colonial architect Peter Harrison and consecrated on December 2, 1763, the Jeshuat Israel Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island - renamed the Touro Synagogue in the nineteenth century - is the oldest standing synagogue in the United States.  The congregation is was built to serve was established by 15 Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families who arrived in Newport from Barbados in 1658. (Historical record reveals that following the Inquisition, the families made their way to London, Amsterdam, then to Brazil in the New World, and finally to a number of islands in the Caribbean, including Barbados.)

For the exterior of the building, Harrison adopted the style of Palladian architecture, with its origins in Venice. Another source of design advice came from the synagogue’s cantor, Isaac Touro, who had recently arrived from Amsterdam.

In 1790, the synagogue received George Washington’s letter guaranteeing that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

In the early 1800s, the shrinking Newport community asked the Sephardic Shearith Israel shul in New York City to steward the building and its ritual objects. Also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel was founded in 1654 and calls itself  “America’s First Jewish Congregation.”

The congregation currently worshiping in the Touro Synagogue, Jeshuat Israel, was founded in 1881 as Ashkenazi immigrants began flooding America from Eastern Europe. They continued to use the shul even when Shearith Israel attempted to close it. The two groups fought in court over ownership of the building before agreeing in 1903 that Shearith Israel was the owner. Jeshuat Israel was allowed to lease the building on condition its congregants pray in the Sephardic style.

In 2011, Jeshuat Israel attempted to sell a pair of handcrafted, 18th-century silver bulbs, which are used to adorn Torah scrolls, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where they were on loan. Shearith Israel claimed, however, that it owned the  owned the ornaments and selling them to a secular institution violated Jewish law. The case went to court and the district court ruled in Jeshuat Israel’s favor. The decision was reversed on appeal with former Supreme Court Justice David Souter ruling that Shearith Israel is the owner of the synagogue and its ritual objects.

On the occasion of its designation as a National Historic Site in 1946, President Harry S Truman wrote, The setting apart of this historic shrine as a national monument is symbolic of our national tradition of freedom, which has inspired men and women of every creed, race, and ancestry to contribute their highest gifts to the development of our national culture.

Sources: Library of Congress
Haaretz, (December 2, 2012);
Ben Sales, “Who owns America’s oldest synagogue? It’s a 350-year-old argument,” JTA, (August 4, 2017).