August 14, 2023

U.S. Religious Freedom Comes in a Letter at Touro Synagogue

In 1790, then-President George Washington wrote a letter addressed “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport” that, though written more than two centuries ago, contains themes that are still essential today.

When Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island Moses Seixas, warden of Congregation Yeshuat Israel, was one of the local dignitaries who welcomed him. Seixas’ congregation met in a brick building dedicated in 1763, designed by architect Peter Harrison. Its high ceilings and gallery welcomed Jews, the descendants of those who fled Spain and Portugal because of religious persecution. The 12 ionic columns in the sanctuary symbolized the 12 tribes of Israel.

Firmly rooted in this community with this background, Seixas wrote Washington a letter honoring the occasion of his visit. Washington responded to Seixas with the letter to what was then one of America's largest Jewish communities. The now-famous letter underscored the importance of religious freedom to the young United States of America, just 14 years old at the time. It says, in part:

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."

Touro Synagogue Exterior

photo by: Lew Keen

Exterior of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.

As has been the tradition for three-quarters of a century, the letters are read in full as part of a public ceremony on the third Sunday in August taking place inside the Touro Synagogue, a National Trust Historic Site, which was designated a National Landmark in 1946. In recent years the event has been livestreamed to a tent outside and is available later for on-demand streaming. Previous keynote speakers have included Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Considered one of Harrison’s most significant works, the synagogue features a pulley system for raising and lowering the symbolic eternal light, making it easy to refill with oil before it was converted to electricity. As is traditional, the building is oriented so that the Torahs face Jerusalem when stored in their ark. The synagogue’s nearby burial plot is memorialized in poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Emma Lazarus. Between 2000-2006 the synagogue was fully renovated.

The mission of the Touro Synagogue Foundation (a different entity than Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which is the active orthodox Jewish congregation that worships in the historic building) is to “teach the letter.”

“Not only do we teach the letter, we teach the history,” explained Meryle Cawley, the executive director of Touro Synagogue Foundation. The Touro Synagogue Foundation doesn’t just go back to 1790 when it teaches history; it goes all the way back to 1492 and the Spanish Inquisition, Cawley said, to talk about religious freedom and oppression through the ages. Part of the foundation's mission is to counter the current uptick in antisemitism in the U.S. The foundation’s curriculum doesn’t gloss over difficult parts of history, either, pointing out the hypocrisy of founding fathers who espoused religious freedom while enslaving Black people, for example. With this in mind, Omar Eaton-Martinez, senior vice president of historic sites, said, "Touro Synagogue represents the complexities of the American experience. It has been a site of religious freedom and a beacon of safety for the persecuted."

Rhode Island was unusual when it came to religious tolerance, Cawley said. “There’s not anywhere else in the world like it. We were the only colony where there was no state-sanctioned religion. Not only did you have a choice of religions, you had a choice to have a religion or not. That was unheard of.”

Rita Slom standing in front of a cloth covered podium on an altar reading a letter from George Washington

photo by: Lew Keen/Touro Synagogue

Rita Slom, long-time congregation member and Touro Synagogue Foundation board member, reading the Washington Letter in 2022.

It is that groundbreaking perspective of religious liberty that informs the foundation’s work.

“The letter is a culmination of the work we do all year to honor one of this country's founding beliefs,” Cawley said.

While the foundation offers programming open to all, its Pathways to Understanding interactive curriculum is specifically designed for middle-school students. Cawley said kids that age are at a good point, developmentally, to learn about diversity. “We want to get this message out to dispel myths and to counteract the rise in bigotry and antisemitism today,” Cawley said. The online curriculum is available to schools worldwide, but getting students inside the historic building can be powerful. So, among the projects the foundation has helped fund are school buses to bring students to the synagogue to hear its story in person.

That story, told with Seixas' and Washington’s passion, is a powerful introduction to issues surrounding religious freedom. Cawley, who has been in a leadership position at the foundation for 13 years, joked they have a saying: “‘It’s a good day if we have made somebody cry.’”

Alvin Riley, Pastor of the Mt. Zion AME Church in Newport during the 2022 Reading

photo by: Lew Keen/Touro Synagogue

Alvin Riley, pastor of the Mt. Zion AME Church in Newport, speaking at the 2022 reading.

A member of the Artillery Company of Newport stands at attention after the presentation of colors.

photo by: Lew Keen/Touro Synagogue

A member of the Artillery Company of Newport stands attention at Touro Synagogue letter reading after the Presentation of Colors in 2022.

The Touro Synagogue Foundation does not own the historic building but does conduct educational tours of the structure, starting in the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Visitors Center which opened in 2009. Those tours, led by paid guides, not volunteers, include some elements that provide the opportunity to discuss religious persecution. For example, the bimah (the elevated platform from which services are led) features a trap door into the cellar. Cawley said historians don’t know why it exists; Jews who came to Newport in the 1600s and 1700s were not living in fear, she said. Perhaps, she said, the trap door was symbolic. The rabbi would stand on it and remind congregants about the existence of religious persecution in the past. Today, it provides an opening for discussions. The tours are consistently rated a top attraction for visitors to Newport. Cawley said even people who don’t consider themselves religious note that there is something “spiritual” about the building.

While the perception of Newport may be one of Gilded Age affluence, more than 15 percent of its population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census, and Cawley said the foundation strives to reach students and adults from all demographic groups. While many of the visitors to the synagogue are Jewish, not all are. Private Catholic and public schools are among those who take advantage of the foundation's programming. The small foundation’s funding comes from private donors and grants.

While the Seixas and Washington letters demonstrate that religious freedom has long been on the minds of those in the U.S., Cawley said in recent years she’s heard more than a few visitors say, “I know a few people I could send these letters to.” The foundation emphasizes a message that “goes beyond toleration to a guaranteed right,” Cawley said.

“What we do is tiny in scope but huge in message and messaging,” she added. “It is not just a Jewish story; it is an American story.”

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Margaret Littman is a Nashville-based journalist who tells the stories of people and places. Follow her work on socials @littmanwrites.

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