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File:Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI.jpg

Description Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI...America's first synagogue

There has been a Jewish community in Newport since 1677, and it is believed that it may date back as far as 1656. The original settlers were Sephardic Jews who had been forced out of Spain by the Inquisition. They landed in New Amsterdam in the early 1600s and worked their way up the East Coast to Newport. Rhode Island was an oasis of tolerance in the otherwise intolerant colonies.

The present building was dedicated in 1763. Peter Harrison was the architect, and the first rabbi, Isaac Tuoro, verbally gave him the description of a synagogue. This makes it the oldest synagogue in the United States. There are 12 pillars inside, one for each of the tribes of Israel. The men worshipped on the main floor along the walls, and the Torah was read from the centre of the room. The woman worshipped from the second level. There are no stairs in the synagogue, so we wondered how the woman got up there.

At the time of the American Revolution, there were 30 Jewish families in Newport, and this was their golden age: they were successful businessmen and ship-owners. This group was dispersed by the war, and the original community never came back, though individuals did. The synagogue survived the war because it was used by the British as a hospital, not because it was a house of worship. Later, it was used as a courthouse. Among the treasures on display here is a letter from President Washington guaranteeing the Jews of Newport freedom to practice their religion and a 500-year-old Torah believed to have been brought here by the first Sephartic Jews.

The present community is descended from Askenazy Jews who came to this country from Eastern Europe. Through all its many incarnations, the Jews held the keys to the building, and it is believed that they opened the synagogue as a stop on the Underground Railroad. (there is a trapdoor in the centre of the Beema where slaves are believed to have been hidden).

In America , like millions of others, found the religious toleration they had so long sought. In his famous letter to "The Hebrew Congregation in Newport," written in 1790, President George Washington pledged that the new nation would" give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance" and thereby set the standard for religious freedom and civil liberties in America.

Date 15 October 2004, 13:59:52
Source Flickr
Author dbking
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