NEWPORT, R.I. — Touro Synagogue sits on a small plot of land in the center of downtown. Strikingly simple in design, the sandstone-colored building, with its pointed roof, doesn’t look all that different from the ones surrounding it.
On a recent afternoon, a time when the streets are much quieter in this seasonal seaside community, people meandered past it without as much as a glance.
But at the synagogue, visitation is up right now when compared to previous years, according to staff members who work there. Many people from all walks of life are finding solace in hard times at the synagogue — the oldest in the country — amid the war between Israel and Hamas.
“People are coming here because they want to feel a connection, whether they’re Jewish or not Jewish,” said Meryle Cawley, director of the Touro Synagogue Foundation. “People come just because they’re feeling fragile right now, and this is a place to reflect.”
Built in 1763, the synagogue has long welcomed people of all faiths. The campus grounds include the Loeb Visitors Center, Patriot’s Park, and Touro Synagogue. Visitors learn about how Rhode Island and Newport were the birthplaces of religious freedom in the US, and how that culture of open-mindedness allowed Touro Synagogue and its congregation to flourish.
“It’s not just a Jewish story. It’s American history and this is our role,” Cawley said.
On a recent Monday afternoon tour of the synagogue, where a small group of people walked through the space, tour guide Ethan Lescault told visitors about the building’s history, including how it opened on the first night of Hanukkah, on Dec. 2, 1763, “and everyone was invited.”
Lescault pointed out other historical houses of worship nearby were built around the same time or earlier: The Quaker Meeting House (now known as the Great Friends Meeting House), United Baptist Church, and Trinity Church. Each house of worship was purposely built around the town’s center rather than in it — a nod to the fact that there was no state religion in Rhode Island.
“That was unusual at the time, because most other colonies were organized a bit differently,” said Lescault, noting how in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, a Puritan church would be “right next door” to the town’s center.
Rhode Island’s early settlers were “all about acceptance and tolerance,” Lescault said, adding that the state’s founding leaders, Roger Williams, John Clarke, and Anne Hutchinson, set the precedent.
“They all share this idea of liberty of conscience, so they wanted to found a colony on this idea of practicing any religion, or no religion, and not to be forced otherwise,” Lescault said.
This made Newport an appealing choice for a community of Sephardic Jews living in the Caribbean and looking for a place to settle and practice their religion. That history is often lost on people, Cawley said.
“They think of the late 1800s and the Jews that arrived from Russia and Poland, but they don’t know the earlier history of the Sephardic Jews arriving here for economic and religious reasons,” she said.
The first Jewish congregation to organize in Newport was Congregation Nephuse Israel, in about 1658. The congregation is the second-oldest Jewish congregation in the US (the oldest, Shearith Israel, was founded in New York in 1654.) Congregation Nephuse Israel met informally in Newport for about 80 years, until they had enough money to build their first house of worship.
The walls inside the Touro Synagogue are awash in a muted mint green. Twelve ionic columns support a gallery, where women still sit separately from men during ceremony in accordance with the Jewish Orthodox tradition. High ceilings, bulbous railings, and bronze candlesticks and chandeliers create an understated elegance that expands beyond the box that contains it.
It’s easy to forget the building was constructed more than 200 years ago, and has remained largely unchanged.
“The synagogue is very fortunate in that it survived the colonial era full of wars and conflict, the American Revolution, and a long list of natural disasters,” Lescault said.
Designed by renowned architect Peter Harrison, who also designed King’s Chapel in Boston, the synagogue adopts colonial style architecture, “which is a fairly simple kind of style,” Lescault said.
“If you remove everything religious from the sanctuary, it would look like a Colonial meeting house,” he said.
Architecture aside, having a reliable source of funding has also helped with upkeep over the centuries. That started with its first religious leader, Isaac Touro, and his sons, Abraham and Judah.
“They became really financially supportive of the synagogue, and became very philanthropic in donating to charities, and keeping the synagogue in good shape,” Lescault said, adding that the Touros were responsible for paving the street outside the synagogue, fittingly called Touro Street.
When the British occupied Newport at the onset of the Revolutionary War, Touro Synagogue was briefly used as a military hospital, which kept it safe from being destroyed like many nearby buildings. British troops eventually left the city in 1779, mainly driven out because of the cold winters. Rhode Island ratified the Constitution and joined the US in 1790.
“Rhode Island was hesitant, because the constitution did not definitely protect religious liberty,” Lescault said. “It was in talks, but it hadn’t been solidified as of yet.”
President George Washington visited Newport to thank its leaders for ratifying the Constitution anyway, and he wrote a letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport that “put the synagogue on the map, historically,” Lescault said.
In the letter, Washington says the country will give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” regarding religious liberty.
“That exchange is probably one of the earliest times in US history that we see the idea of religious liberty so clearly, and frankly eloquently, put to paper, especially, too, at such a high level — at the hand of an acting president,” Lescault said.
That’s one of the reasons many historians believe Touro Synagogue was named a National Historic Site in 1946.
“That exchange and that idea was not only critical to the synagogue, but also to the state of Rhode Island, the country at large, and arguably for religious history across the world,” Lescault said.
Each year, around the third week of August, the congregation, now called Congregation Jeshuat Israel, commemorates the moment with a reading of the letter at Touro Synagogue.
The congregation is currently active with about 150 participants. It hosts weekly services, holiday services, weddings, and bar and bat mitzvahs. Each year, thousands of people visit to pray, explore, and learn about its mark on American history.
Following the Revolutionary War, Jews in Newport dispersed due to a downturn in the economy, and Touro Synagogue closed for about 60 years. During those years, Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, which owns the building, became caretakers.
While Congregation Jeshuat Israel have been tenants of the synagogue since the early 1900s, Congregation Shearith Israel still retained rights over the building. There have been recent court battles between the two congregations, as Congregation Shearith Israel seeks to evict Congregation Jeshuat Israel.
The fight between the New York and Newport congregations is in contrast with the history of tolerance the synagogue represents, according to a recent article by Times of Israel.
Still, Touro Synagogue stands as a symbol of religious freedom in Rhode Island and a place that welcomes all. A woman from New Jersey on the tour marveled at the centuries-old building.
“It could have been built today,” she said.