Despite all the jokes about its size, the country’s smallest state has played an outsized role in the fight for religious freedom. Ask any Rhode Islander about it, and you’ll probably hear the name Roger Williams.
But the story does not end there. More than a century after the arrival of the minister who preached the separation of church and state, the state has become one of the first in the country to receive assurances of religious freedom from President George Washington himself, who visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport. .
This guarantee came in a 1790 letter to his congregation swearing that the government “gives sectarianism no sanction” and “persecution no assistance”. The following year, the First Amendment passed.
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It’s a magnificent stalwart of history for a town perhaps best known for its yachts, regattas and Golden Age mansions featured in a new HBO series.
Now, after two years of closure by the pandemic, the synagogue has another chance to tell its story, having welcomed visitors for regular tours organized by the Touro Synagogue Foundation, a secular nonprofit, in partnership with the George Washington Institution for Religious Freedom.
The story predates the American Revolution
Opened in 1763, it is the oldest surviving synagogue in the United States. But its history is much older, its congregation having been founded in 1658 by descendants of Jews who fled the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition.
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It wasn’t until 1759 that construction began, as did the search for a rabbi, which nearly fell through, tourist guide Lew Keen explained.
“So they basically put out a classified ad in Amsterdam looking for a mature, experienced, wonderful religious leader,” Keen said. “Nobody wanted the job. So they ended up hiring an 18-year-old bachelor named Isaac Touro, and he came in to lead this congregation.
The building they would come to worship in was designed by colonial architect Peter Harrison, whose credits include the Brick Market in Washington Square and the Redwood Library.
As Keen says, while life was good after the building opened, it was only good for 13 years. As fears grew about the British invasion coming to fruition in 1776, large sections of the Newport community fled the town, and soldiers took up residence in houses and used the synagogue as a hospital. Keen suspects this is what saved him from harm.
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In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Newport no longer prospered, having lost its footing as a leading seaport. As the Newport Historical Society asserts, the city was “bypassed by industrialization and its landscape frozen in time”.
60 quiet years, then a legal battle
A population decline and loss of the Jewish community meant that Touro had 60 quiet years in which he held no regular services while a local Quaker served as caretaker. The New York Congregation Shearith Israel eventually became the synagogue’s trustees and today sought to evict the Newport Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which spent more than a century worshiping there.
Its first members arrived in the 19th century as Newport reinvented itself as a resort town for vacationers and tourists, its growth accelerated by the arrival of the United States Navy. Once again, the synagogue became home to those who had left theirs – this time, Ashkenazi Jews who had emigrated from Eastern Europe.
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What is the story of the mysterious trapdoor in the synagogue?
To this day, a trapdoor can be spotted under the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read. According to legend, it leads to a tunnel under the building, allowing worshipers a safe exit if needed.
“It’s a great story,” Keen said. “That’s just not true.”
Although it is not fully understood why Harrison placed the trap door there, it may have been symbolic.
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“The men and women who lived here when it broke out knew it was a safe community,” Keen said. “But it symbolizes how it was in the old country, where you needed an escape route.”
To learn more about the Touro Synagogue, visit tourosynagogue.org and check the tour times here. Additionally, on May 19 at 7:30 p.m., interested individuals are invited to attend a free virtual lecture hosted by the Touro Synagogue Foundation on Surviving Ancient American Synagogues. Book a space here.
Providence Journal editor Amy Russo, a transplanted New Yorker, is looking for new ways to find out about her adopted state. If you have any suggestions for this column, email him at [email protected]