Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island

Atop a small hill in Touro Street, Newport, Rhode Island sits the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue in the whole of North America, the Touro Synagogue. It is over two centuries old and it is the last building of its kind that dates back to the Colonial era. The classic Georgian Touro Synagogue is the most notable work of the distinguished architect Peter Harrison who was famous for his architectural creativity and flair. His works are inspired and influenced by the Colonial and Georgian styles. Harrison was commissioned by the Jeshuat Israel congregation in Newport which was, at that time, headed by Cantor Isaac Touro to design the synagogue.

The Jeshaut Israel congregation was established in 1658 when Spanish and Portuguese Jews migrated from the West Indies to Easton’s Point. The congregation saw the construction for the Touro synagogue begin in 1759 and conclude in 1763. Inside the building are a dozen Ionic columns that represent each of the twelve ancient tribes of Israel. The columns support the synagogue’s balconies.

The building is oriented to the east, the direction wherein the holy place of Jerusalem lies. As in other synagogues, the ark which houses the Torah is on the east wall. The Torah is a scroll that contains the writings on the first five books of the Old Testament. It is the ultimate body of divine knowledge and law of Jewish tradition and scriptures. Above the ark is a Hebrew mural, painted by Benjamin Howland, embodying the Ten Commandments.

As the years passed, the Jewish community decreased in number and lost the capability to maintain a synagogue. As such, the keys and deed to the Touro Synagogue were turned over the Congregation Shearith Israel. The congregation, which is in New York, is still the formal owner of the building. During the late 1900s, Jewish life in Newport was revived by the torrent of eastern European Jewish emigrants to the United States. Isaac Touro, the synagogue’s 18th-century cantor, and his wife had a son named Judah Touro who became a successful merchant in New Orleans. At his death, Judah left ten thousand dollars for the maintenance of the synagogue built through the efforts of his father. The Touro Synagogue was designated a National Historic Site in 1946 after it was nationally acclaimed for its historical and architectural distinction. It is also an affiliated area of the National Park Service.

On October 15, 1966, the building was included in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2001, the Congregation Shearith Israel partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The synagogue, along with just twenty other buildings, is part of the collection of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In addition to being the oldest synagogue in America, the Touro Synagogue is also among the oldest and most significant symbols of religious freedom and liberty.