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2 December 2011

On this day in history: Oldest surviving synagogue in North America dedicated, 1763

In May 1492, the joint monarchs of Spain, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, made the Alhambra Decree, by which all Jews in Spanish territories had to either convert to Catholicism or go into exile. Many Jewish families fled the Iberian peninsular and settled in the Caribbean only to have to move on when they were found by the Inquisition. So it was that a group of fifteen Jewish families arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1658 to enjoy the religious tolerance afforded there.

Over the next century their community grew large enough to form a congregation called Nefutse Yisrael ("the Scattered of Israel") and undertook to raise the funds to build a synagogue. Construction of the building, designed by Peter Harrison, began in 1759. The following year the congregation elected their first religious leader, the Dutch born Isaac de Abraham Touro. On 2nd December 1763, he dedicated the synagogue, which bears his name.

The academic and Congregationalist minister Ezra Stiles recorded the dedication ceremony, which he attended:

In the Afternoon was the dedication of the new Synagogue in this Town. It began by a handsome procession in which were carried the Books of the Law, to be deposited in the Ark. Several Portions of Scripture, & of their Service with a Prayer for the Royal Family, were read and finely sung by the priest [Chazzan Touro] & People. There were present many Gentlemen & Ladies. The Order and Decorum, the Harmony & Solemnity of the Musick, together with a handsome Assembly of People, in a Edifice the most perfect of the Temple kind perhaps in America, & splendidly illuminated, could not but raise in the Mind a faint Idea of the Majesty & Grandeur of the Ancient Jewish Worship mentioned in Scripture.

Dr. Isaac de Abraham Touro performed the Service. The Synagogue is about perhaps fourty foot long & 30 wide, of Brick on a Foundation of free Stone: it was begun about two years ago, & is now finished except the Porch & the Capitals of the Pillars. The Front representation of the holy of holies or its Partition Veil, consists only of wainscoted Breast Work on the East End, in the lower part of which four long Doors cover an upright Square Closet the depth of which is about a foot or the thickness of the Wall, & in this Apartment (vulgarly called the Ark) were deposited three Copies & Rolls of the Pentateuch, written on Vellum or rather tanned Calf Skin; one of these Rolls I was told by Dr. Touro was presented from Amsterdam & is Two Hundred years old; the Letters have the Rabbinical Flourishes.

A Gallery for the Women runs round the whole Inside, except the East End supported by Columns of Ionic order, over which are placed correspondent Columns of the Corinthian order supporting the Cieling of the Roof. The Depth of the Corinthian Pedestal is the height of the Balustrade which runs round the Gallery. The Pulpit for Reading the Law, is a raised Pew with an extended front table; this placed about the center of the Synagogue or nearer the West End, being a Square embalustraded Comporting with the Length of the indented Chancel before & at the Foot of the Ark.

On the middle of the North Side & affixed to the ·Wall is a raised Seat for the Parnas or Ruler, & for the Elders; the Breast and Back interlaid with Chinese Mosaic Work. A Wainscotted Seat runs round the Sides of the Synagogue below, & another in the Gallery. There are no other Seats or pews. There may be Eighty Souls of Jews or 15 families now in Town. The Synagogue has already cost Fifteen Hundred Pounds Sterling. There are to be five Lamps pendant from a lofty Ceiling.
G. A. Kohut & P. Cowen, Ezra Stiles and the Jews, Selected Passages from his Literary Diary Concerning Jews and Judaism with Critical and Explanatory Notes (New York, 1902), pp. 58-9.

The Touro Synagogue website offers more information about the history of the Jewish community in Newport and their place of worship.

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