The Jewish community of Newport was founded by 15 families who arrived in the colonial seaport by ship in 1658. In 1677 the Jewish community purchased and consecrated land to serve as a cemetery. Many of the founding members of the congregation are buried in the cemetery that can still be seen today where Kay Boulevard meets Bellevue Avenue and Touro Street, across from the Hotel Viking.
Newport’s colonial Jewish community initially met in homes or rented buildings and took turns leading the service. In 1758 Isaac Touro, a young rabbinic student, came from Amsterdam, Holland to serve as full time religious leader for the group. On December 2, 1763 the congregation proudly opened their synagogue for the first time on the first night of Hanukah.
Designed by noted colonial architect Peter Harrison, Touro Synagogue is considered among the ten most architecturally distinguished buildings of the 18th century and the only work by Harrison to remain essentially unaltered. The only synagogue to survive from the colonial period, Touro Synagogue is the oldest synagogue building still standing in the United States. There is still an active congregation over 130 members who meet in the historic synagogue.
During a visit to Newport with Thomas Jefferson in the summer of 1790, President George Washington received a letter from Moses Seixas, warden of the Newport congregation, congratulating the new leader and expressing concerns about the fate of the Jewish community under the new government. George Washington’s reassuring reply included some of Seixas’s own words and promised that the new nation would give “…to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”
Because of Washington’s famous letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island” and its architectural significance, Touro Synagogue was made a National Historic Site by an Act of Congress in 1946. In 2001, Touro Synagogue became the 21st site in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s collection of Historic Sites.
Please visit our website www.tourosynagogue.org for more information about Touro Synagogue and planning your visit.