On this day: Dedication of the Touro Synagogue, in Newport

December 2 1763: America’s oldest surviving synagogue

By Jennifer Lipman, December 2, 2010

Today the USA is home to the largest Jewish population in the Diaspora, but the first Jewish settlements in North America did not emerge until the 1650s in New Amsterdam, the colonial capital later renamed New York. The first synagogue in the US was not in New York, however, but in the tiny state of Rhode Island.

In the wake of the edict expelling the Jews from Spain in 1492, many of Europe’s Jews – in particular those of Sephardic descent - were seeking sought a new home, and for some, the New World would be where they would find it. They came to South America, the Caribbean, and to the colonies that would eventually become the United States of America.

In 1658 around 15 Spanish families settled in Newport and founded the Jeshuat Israel congregation (Salvation of Israel). They dedicated a Jewish cemetery in Newport in 1677, but initially prayed in private homes.

But as the community grew, efforts began to set up a designated place of worship. Under the leadership of Chazan Isaac Touro the community purchased land on which to build a synagogue, and construction started in 1759. The building was built in the New England Colonial style of architecture, with 12 columns to represent the 12 tribes, and is the only synagogue of the colonial era still standing in America.

The American Revolution of 1776 hit the town hard, and many Jews fled, while the synagogue was used as a hospital for the British troops. Although Newport’s Jewish population has declined, the Touro Synagogue remains a popular point for visitors.

It has also gained a place in history, thanks to a famous letter written by President George Washington to the synagogue’s warden Moses Seixas in 1790. In it, he declared that the USA would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

What the JC said: It stands as a living testimony to the presence of Jews in the colonial era…Nonetheless, if there had been no Jews at all in the United States from the very beginning of its history to the period after the Civil War, the history of America would have been very little different...the much more foreign mass migration that came between the Civil war and the First World War (1865-1914)

See more from the JC archives here

Last updated: 9:48am, December 2 2010