The oldest surviving Colonial American synagogue is in Newport, representing Rhode Island’s commitment to religious, political, and personal freedom. With the contentiousness and ridiculous attack on civil liberties by the presumed Presidential candidate, how refreshing to reconnect to principle American values.
Even George Washington thought so, writing a letter to the Hebrew congregation of Touro Synagogue stating “To Bigotry, No Sanction.”
With the Spanish Inquisition, specifically the Alhambra decree after their civil war declaring that all Spaniards must be Catholic, some Jews converted (Conversos), others pretended to convert but dangerously still practiced Judaism (Cryptos), and others fled. This diaspora generally took Jews to Portugal, which soon found the similar need to Catholicize, and then Amsterdam, famously tolerant until the Portuguese took it over.
Fleeing the Portuguese again, the first Jews came to New York in 1654 and were barely tolerated by Peter Stuyvesant who enacted severe restrictions on Jewish involvement in civic life. The next group decided to test Rhode Island, known for its separation of church and state. Soon Cryptos were coming out by leaving Spain for Newport. By 1677, the Newport group had enough demand to buy land for a burial ground.
By 1763, the Sephardic congregation wanted a Rabbi and couldn’t find one willing to come to the hinterlands from progressive Amsterdam. Until Isaac Touro, who hadn’t finished his training, came and became the namesake for the newly built synagogue. The location is not off in some periphery, but adjacent to Newport’s historic center (just as its congregants were central to Newport life).
What a beauty! I’m a complete sucker for anything Palladio-inspired, and so was the architect Peter Harrison. The Italian architect Palladio created pattern books, so his style spread through the European-connected cultures. The secret was to know how to place the parts from the patterns. Balance, symmetry, harmony are the principles. Nice with the freedom, tolerance, and acceptance that Rhode Island embodied.
You can see how lovely the space is, with its dentil molding, arched Palladian windows, the ancient-Greek-inspired pediment, balustrades, and Ionic columns on the men’s level and Corinthian columns on the women’s balcony (yes, this was always and still is an Orthodox congregation). Each column is a solid tree, smoothed before painted.
Harrison had to work with more than Palladio’s pattern books to design for the needs of the congregation. He may be turning over in his grave with the asymmetrical placement of the President’s box, where important people including JFK, Eisenhower, and presumably George Washington attended services. When the President of the congregation has been a woman, she, alas, sits upstairs, not in the downstairs box. Some things just can’t be tolerated apparently.
The raised bemah placed in the center of the space for the Rabbi is a Sephardic tradition. Opening the ark housing the Torah and bringing it to the Rabbi for the reading involves a short procession. This synagogue’s Torah was already 200 years old when it was brought from Amsterdam in 1763, and we got a quick glance at its browned pages.
Throughout the centuries and today, the pull to America has been about freedom and the chance for a better life. What a nice reminder that at some points in our history, those ideals were gloriously met, for the greatest good of all involved.