It is not often that visitors can step into such a large and important part of history. Visiting the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, allows guests to stop into the oldest Jewish temple in the United States and learn more about its history, as well as seeing how it continues to live and inspire people of all faiths today. The first Jewish residents of Newport arrived in the mid-1600s, many of them from the country of Barbados.
Being of Spanish and Portuguese descent, they formed the original congregation which they named Nephuse Israel (which translates to Scattered of Israel), which was only the second congregation of its kind in the US. The cemetery was established closely after that, with the synagogue following in the 1700s (it was finally completed in 1763). It was dedicated during Chanakuh that year and was considered a celebration by the whole region, who attended no matter their religious denomination. The future President of Yale University even attended! Toura was recognized as a Historic Site in 1946 and continues to be an active center of worship.
George Washington exhibit - In 1790, the new President of the United States wrote a short letter to the Jewish population of Newport, Rhode Island, meant to assure them that religious tyranny would not be tolerated in the new nation. Instead, religious liberty was one of the top priorities of his Presidency, making sure that the new government would not be restricting anyone’s ability to practice his or her religion. This exhibit focuses on that letter, both in how it affected the congregation directly and how that letter has reverberated across the ages in how religion is treated in modern day society.
Religious Liberty - A further exploration of the issues that George Washington’s letter brought up, this exhibit delves deeper into what religious liberty actually means. What exactly should be separate with church and state? What part did Rhode Island have to play in helping religious liberty take hold? The exhibit explores those ideas and more.
Early American Jews - One of the most interesting exhibits, the area focusing on Jews in the early development of America tells the history of what life was like back then. It also features the thirteen Jews who are honored at Patriot’s Park and what their contributions were. For instance, Solomon Bush from Delaware was the more high-ranking officer in the Continental Army that was Jewish. Aaron Lopez from Rhode Island was known as the most successful Newport trader and merchant in the 1700s, as well as being one of the founders of the synagogue. Gershom Seixas from New York was the first Jewish clergyman that was native born in the United States. Their stories, and many more, are featured in this exhibit.
Jewish Cemetery - The cemetery located near the Touro synagogue was originally dedicated in 1677 and is currently the second oldest in the country. This exhibit focuses on its impact to history, in a more literary sense. In the mid-1850s, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow traveled to the area and was inspired by the grounds, writing a poem about it. Later, another poet named Emma Lazarus did the same. The cemetery’s inspiration continues to live on through the words of those and many other poets and writers who have been inspired by the grounds.
While visiting the synagogue, visitors are welcome to attend services. There are, however, a few important things to keep in mind. All religious services are held on Friday nights as well as Saturday mornings. They are also offered on all Jewish holidays. Services are observed in the orthodox tradition using the Sephard playbook. Men and women are expected to sit separately according to orthodox observance, and visitors are expected to dress appropriately (no sleeveless clothing is permitted. See the website for additional clothing expectations). During the summer (July through September), weekdays services may also be held. Contact the synagogue for additional information.
Touro also holds special events for members of the congregation as well as other Jewish guests. Weddings, vow renewals, bar/bat mitzvahs, baby naming, and other events can be booked by contacting them directly for additional information. The synagogue is an incredibly beautiful and popular destination for any special event and they do book quickly, so contact them with potential dates as soon as they are available for a greater chance at securing a spot.
Touro Synagogue, 85 Touro Street, Newport, RI, 02840, Phone: 401-847-4794