English versionFrench version

CULTURE & HERITAGE - Culture & History


(A summary from Wikipedia)

The Touro Synagogue is a 1763 synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.

That is the oldest synagogue building still standing in the United States, the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue building in North America, and the only surviving synagogue building in the U.S. dating to the colonial era.

Culture 127

It was designed by noted British-Colonial era architect and Rhode Island resident Peter Harrison and is considered his most notable work. The interior is flanked by a series of twelve Ionic columns supporting balconies. The columns signify the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. Each column is carved from a single tree. Located at 85 Touro Street, the Touro Synagogue remains an active Orthodox synagogue. The building is oriented to face east toward Jerusalem. The ark containing the Torah is on the east wall; above it is a mural representing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. It was painted by the Newport artist Benjamin Howland. (It is interesting to note a spelling mistake in the mural. The top of the three crowns in the mural is initialed to depict the "Crown of Monarchy" (Keter Malchut). The bottom right crown is initialed to depict the "Crown of Torah" (Keter Torah). The bottom left crown is meant to be initialed to depict the "Crown of Priesthood" (Keter Kehuna), but incorrectly has the Hebrew letter Lamed instead of Kaf)

The Touro Synagogue was built from 1759 to 1763 for the Jeshuat Israel congregation in Newport under the leadership of Cantor (Chazzan) Isaac Touro. The cornerstone was laid by Aaron Lopez, a prominent merchant in Newport involved in the spermaceti candlemaking business and other commercial ventures. The Jeshuat Israel congregation itself dates back to 1658 when 15 Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families arrived, probably from the West Indies, and many settled near Easton's Point.[citation needed] The synagogue was formally dedicated 2 December 1763. Other notable leaders include Abraham Pereira Mendes and Henry Samuel Morais (1900–01).

Judah Touro, the son of Isaac Touro and his wife Reyna, made a fortune as a merchant in New Orleans. He left $10,000 ($260,000 in current dollar terms) in his will for the upkeep of the Jewish cemetery and synagogue in Newport.

A legend exists that the trap door under the tebáh (bimah) was used while the synagogue was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 1946, Touro Synagogue was designated a National Historic Site and is an affiliated area of the National Park Service. The synagogue was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. In 2001, the congregation joined into a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation


The congregation at Newport, never large, was composed of Jews with roots in the Sephardic Spanish and Portuguese diaspora, with some Ashkenazim by the eighteenth century.

The first Jewish residents of Newport, fifteen Spanish Jewish families, arrived in 1658. It is presumed that they arrived via the communities in Curaçao and Suriname. The small community worshipped in rooms in private homes for more than a century before they could afford to build a synagogue.

The community purchased and dedicated the Jewish Cemetery at Newport in 1677.

The city of Newport faded in importance shortly after American independence, after the capital of Rhode Island moved to Providence, which rapidly also surpassed Newport as a seaport. The Jewish community, too small to maintain a synagogue, removed the Torah scrolls and sent them for safekeeping along with the deed to the building to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. It still formally owns the Touro synagogue. The keys left the Jewish community and were passed to the Goulds, a Quaker family in Newport.

From the 1850s on, the building was occasionally opened for worship for the convenience of summer visitors. It was reopened on a regular basis in 1883 as Jewish life in Newport revived with the late nineteenth century immigration of eastern European Jews. The synagogue acquired a nearby building and ran a Hebrew School and other activities. In the late twentieth century, the number of Jews in Newport dwindled again. The synagogue has had a special relationship with Jewish naval families stationed in Newport. It continues to serve a small congregation, supplemented by travelers who spend the Sabbath in Newport.

Rabbi Marc Mandel, the former Associate Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, CA, became the new Senior Rabbi in July 2012. As of 2012, the congregation consists of about 105 families.