January 22, 2014

Historic Touro Synagogue Celebrates 250 Years of Religious Freedom

Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the country, celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2013. Festivities included the reading of a letter written to the synagogue’s original congregation by George Washington and a visit from Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

Justice Kagan, who was the keynote speaker at the 66th annual reading of the letter in August, underscored the importance of Washington’s message of religious freedom.

“He was self-consciously constructing the country by his words and his deeds about what it meant to be an American and what it meant to live in accordance with the country’s founding principles,” she said in her remarks, also connecting those sentiments to her own experience as a Jewish woman in the U.S. “I am a Jew and I am an American and not once have I thought of those two parts of my identity as in any tension with each other.”

Touro Synagogue was originally built in 1763.

The synagogue underwent a $3.5 million restoration in 2005-06. (The photo above was taken in 1970.)

Washington’s letter, titled “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport” (at the time the largest community of Jewish families in America), was written in 1790 following a visit to the town of Newport that August. Rhode Island had joined the Union just three months before. The letter guarantees religious freedom to both the congregation and all citizens of the U.S.

“The government of the United States... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” he stated. The letter is a powerful testament to the founding father’s belief in equality: At the time the synagogue was founded, less than 10,000 Jewish people lived in the United States.

Touro, built in 1763 in a prominent location overlooking the city of Newport, underwent a $3.5 million restoration in 2005-06 and was officially re-dedicated in early December 2013 with a set of five ornamental Torah scrolls carried through the synagogue for placement in the Ark in the front. Those in attendance included Newport’s mayor, as well as Rhode Island congressmen and members of Congregation Jeshuat Israel.

The synagogue, which receives thousands of visitors a year, completed a new visitor’s center in 2009 for those hoping to learn more about early Jewish history and the history of religious freedom in America. For those planning a visit to this National Trust Historic Site, visit Touro Synagogue's website to learn more.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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