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Touro Synagogue | Local Treasure

Touro Synagogue | Local Treasure
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Touro Synagogue's magnificent interior was designed by Peter Harrison, who modeled it after the Sephardic synagogues of Amsterdam and London.
Photo/Art by John T. Hopf Courtesy of Touro Synagogue
Touro Synagogue’s magnificent interior was designed by Peter Harrison, who modeled it after the Sephardic synagogues of Amsterdam and London.

During Newport, Rhode Island’s month-long Christmas festival thousands of clear lights shine in shop windows and homes. If you visit, take a moment to appreciate the elegant Georgian building downtown that hangs no lights from its eaves. It’s Touro Synagogue, the oldest existing temple in America, and a testament to Rhode Island’s greatest gift to this country: freedom of religion.

The Puritans who founded Boston fled England to avoid persecution, but they sought religious freedom only to be free to persecute others. Roger Williams, a dissident among dissidents, pointed out this hypocrisy and was soon banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He traveled south and founded Providence, the first English settlement in the future colony of Rhode Island, as a place where people of all religions could practice openly.

The extent of this tolerance was tested in 1658, when a ship pulled into Newport Harbor carrying neither the Quakers nor the Anabaptists to whom Williams was accustomed, but 15 families of Sephardic Jews from Barbados. But Williams truly meant “all religions,” and the tiny community was welcomed. During the next century, new groups arrived, and in 1759-1763 they erected Touro Synagogue. President George Washington came to Newport in 1790 while campaigning for the Bill of Rights, which embraces Williams’s great experiment as a pillar of our democracy. In a letter to Touro’s congregation, Washington praised them and assured them that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Still an active synagogue, Touro welcomes visitors to come and reflect on that moment when, by giving a home to those 15 Jewish families, Newport put America on the path to becoming a place where all faiths may celebrate as proudly and as brightly as they please.

Touro Synagogue
85 Touro St.
Newport, RI

Read more: Newport, RI: Touro Synagogue

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Justin Shatwell


Justin Shatwell


Justin Shatwell is a longtime contributor to Yankee Magazine whose work explores the unique history, culture, and art that sets New England apart from the rest of the world. His article, The Memory Keeper (March/April 2011 issue), was named a finalist for profile of the year by the City and Regional Magazine Association.
Updated Thursday, October 8th, 2009

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One Response to Touro Synagogue | Local Treasure

  1. Paul West December 13, 2009 at 2:50 pm #

    Touro Synagogue was the perfect location for George Washington to campaign for the Bill of Rights. Newport was one of the few places who fully practiced what they preached when it came to freedom and equality for all.

    This location is a national treasure, and it’s great to see the new Loeb Visitors Center educating people on it’s history.

    More about Touro Synagogue:

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