Touro’s New Chapter


This new American government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
—  August 1790, an excerpt from President George Washington’s letter to Moses Seixas, warden of Touro Synagogue.  

Newport, R.I.’s Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship in the United States, was 25 years old (having been dedicated in 1763) when young George Washington outlined his philosophy of a new nation, one where religious tolerance would be a touchstone.

A copy of Washington’s famous letter to Seixas is featured in a new $12 million visitors’ center, an addition to the synagogue itself, which has recently been opened steps from the old shul. The first president’s letter was a response to a letter from Seixas and was written when Washington and Thomas Jefferson, his secretary of state, paid a goodwill visit to Rhode Island after that state became the last of the original 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution.

David Kleiman, curator of the two-story visitor’s center, which opened in August, told the Associated Press that the structure not only displays Touro’s history, but it is “much broader: a focus on Colonial Jewish history in general and on the principles that guided the nation’s founding.”

He added: “There’s a placement in history of the role this building has played and, more importantly, its role as a living symbol of the concept of religious freedom, the separation of church and state. The building is the embodiment of that concept in the United States.”

Touro Synagogue, designated in 1946 as a National Historic Site, is still the home of a small but active Orthodox congregation and still offers daily tours of the sanctuary, where runaway slaves were hidden and then transported to freedom in Canada. “This new visitors center has been 12 years in the making, from idea to completed building,” said Keith Stokes, chairman of the board of the Touro Synagogue Foundation. “Its purpose is to share with visitors our great story — [and to be] a platform where everyone can feel able to attend and to learn.”

Visitors to the center can now see hundreds of images and biographies of early American Jews. Its panels detail the origin of the synagogue, its architect and its founding members. On the second floor, costumed actors perform scenes of Colonial life in eight video vignettes projected onto glass.

In 1658, 15 families of Sephardic Jews settled in Newport, a busy seaport center Roger Williams established on the principles of religious freedom. (The first Jews in North America arrived in Dutch New Amsterdam in 1654, refugees from Inquisition-ridden Recife, Brazil.) Isaac Touro, a certified rabbi, emigrated from Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, a century later, to serve as Touro’s first spiritual leader.

On land that synagogue members had bought, Peter Harrison, architect of King’s Chapel in Boston, designed the synagogue.  The dedication date was Dec. 2, 1763, during Chanukah. The building served as a hospital for British soldiers during the Revolutionary War and, after that, as a meeting-place for Rhode Island’s state legislature and Supreme Court.

John Loeb, a philanthropist who largely funded the visitors’ center and who was Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Denmark, calls Washington’s letter to Seixas “one of the great documents in American history.” The letter at the new center is a copy; the original is held by B’nai Brith in Washington, D.C., owned by a private family that will not lend it out.

Loeb’s personal database of Early American Jewish Portraits form the basis of the center’s floor-to-ceiling “Portrait Tree.” A touch screen allows visitors to scroll over each portrait for highlights of the person’s life. (Jewish Week)

Click here to read the entire article or here to visit the Touro Synagogue Website. For more information about the Jews who came to America, visit our Early American SIG.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome. Please post responsibly.