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The Touro Synagogue. Newport, Rhode Island (USA). Model. Permanent Exhibition
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The Touro Synagogue. Newport, Rhode Island (USA). Model. Permanent Exhibition

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The Touro Synagogue,
Newport, Rhode Island (USA).
Model.
(Beit Hatfutsot, Permanent Exhibition)

The synagogue was consecrated in 1763 by Yeshuath Israel congregation and designed by Peter Harrison in American colonial style. The synagogue was designated to serve a small Jewish community of about 20 families.
It was proclaimed a historical site in 1946.
ID Number:
246924
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Newport

Home of the oldest synagogue in the United States

Newport is a seaside city on Aquidneck Island in Rhode Island. It is located 37 miles (60km) southeast of Providence and 74 miles (119km) south of Boston.

Touro Synagogue holds an annual public reading of the letter that George Washington sent to Moses Seixas in 1790, in which he affirms the principle of religious freedom in the United States. Speakers at this event have included the Jewish Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

As of 2012 there were 175 families that were members of Touro Synagogue.

A legal battle broke out between Touro Synagogue and Congregation Shearith Israel in New York regarding ownership of the building and its contents. In 2016 a federal judge ruled in favor of Touro Synagogue.

A model of the Touro Synagogue is among those on display in the New Wing at Beit Hatfutsot-The Museum of the Jewish People.

HISTORY

Newport itself was founded in 1639, and the first Jewish settlers arrived shortly thereafter, in 1677. Most of these new arrivals came from Barbados. They established a cemetery in 1678, and in 1685 they were formally granted trading rights. However, the Jewish community only lasted about thirty years and would not be revived until the 1740s when New Yorkers moved to Newport, attracted by the seaside city's prominence and the economic opportunities that it offered. By the mid-1750s Congregation Nefutse Yisrael (renamed Yeshuat Yisrael a few years after its establishment) had been organized. Isaac Touro arrived from Amsterdam around 1760 and became the cantor. In December 1763 the congregation dedicated a striking Georgian synagogue building designed by Peter Harrison; in 1946 the synagogue building would be declared a national historic site by the United States government.

Between 1750 and 1776 the Jewish community of Newport enjoyed a "golden age" of prosperity from its mercantile businesses. Aaron Lopez was Newport's leading merchant shipper on the eve of the American Revolution; he had arrived in Newport in 1752 to join his relatives. The community was notable enough that it was visited by Moses Malki, a well-known fundraiser from Sefad who collected money for Jews in Palestine, in 1759. A Jewish social club was founded in 1761.

By the mid-1770s about 200 Jews (a sizable number by colonial standards) were living in Newport. Though predominantly Ashkenazi in origin, they tended to follow minhag Sefarad in the synagogue.

The Revolutionary War (1775-1783) effectively destroyed Newport's economy, and many of the city's residents left. On visiting Newport in 1790, President George Washington could "receive with much satisfaction" Yeshuat Yisrael's message of welcome, but the congregation was in decline. By 1822, the synagogue's Torah scrolls had been sent to its parent congregation, Shearith Israel in New York. There were no Jews left in Newport; only the synagogue building and the cemetery remained, supported by funds from the estates of Isaac Touro's sons, Abraham and Judah.

Though after 1850 occasional services were held for vacationers, the synagogue was not open for regular services until Abraham Pereira Mendes reconsecrated the building in 1883. Ten years later the congregation formally reorganized itself and revived the name Yeshuat Yisrael. The congregation secured a charter in 1894, and established a religious school. A Ladies' Auxiliary was formed in 1903.

A separate group calling itself the Touro Congregation was chartered in 1899. Disputes broke out regarding which congregation had a rightful claim to the Touro bequests and to the use of the synagogue; these arguments were finally settled in 1902.

The reborn community was overwhelmingly Ashkenazi; by the mid-1900s the synagogue customs also followed Ashkenazi traditions. Even Yeshuat Yisrael (which eventually began to be called the Touro Synagogue) abandoned minhag sefarad and adopted Ashkenazi traditions.

A chevra kaddisha was established in 1913. An Orthodox synagogue, Ahavas Achim, was established in 1915 by Eastern European immigrants, and in 1920 the Ahavas Achim Sisterhood was launched. The United Hebrew School was organized during the late 1920s. A YMHA (Young Men's Hebrew Association) was established in Newport in 1919. Its membership subsequently declined, to be replaced by the Touro Synagogue's Jewish Community Center in the mid-1950s.

A Conservative congregation, Temple Shalom, was established in 1961.

In 1965 there were about 1,200 Jews living in Newport (3.1% of the total population).