In the past few weeks, we have been exploring how policies regarding religious toleration at the colony and city level in Rhode Island and Newport played out in daily life. Last week, we considered why Quakers, a group of Christians who were marginalized in many of the other British North American colonies, were welcomed in Newport. Today, we are going to investigate the experience of another marginalized religious group: the Jews. As mentioned a few months ago when we discussed Michael Feldberg’s comparison between the founding of present day Israel and the founding of the United States, Jews were not only tolerated in Newport, they were welcome. They flourished and were vital members of the community.
Newport was founded in 1639 and the first Jewish immigrants arrived only a few years later in 1658. Having fled from Spain and Portugal to other countries in Europe before migrating to islands in the Bahamas, they moved to Newport in search of religious toleration which they were denied elsewhere. A relatively small group of 15 families formed a congregation, calling themselves “Yeshuat Israel.” As it grew, the community purchased land in the 1670s for a specially blessed Jewish cemetery which can be seen today at the corner of Kay Street and Touro Street.
Yeshuat Israel flourished, especially since many Jews were intimately involved in Newport’s economy. By the American Revolution, Newport was the fifth largest city in the British North American colonial holdings (only trailing Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston in size), and Jews were involved in many of the city’s trading efforts, like the spermaceti candle trade. Made from the wax-like substance taken from a whale’s head, spermaceti candles were highly valued because they burned more evenly and with a less problematic odor than candles made from other animal by-products. Many Jewish merchants, like many other Rhode Islanders, were also involved in the slave trade, as the colonial economy was intimately linked to slavery.
By the 1750s, the Jewish population had grown too large to fit in private homes for worship services. The Jewish community decided to build its own worship building. Having a synagogue would not only provide a gathering place, but would make a visible statement to the community that Jews were present in the town. Thus, with the help of Newport architect Peter Harrison, the congregation began to design a permanent worship space. Combining his knowledge of Jewish synagogues with his training as an architect, Harrison designed the synagogue. It combined Sephardic synagogue elements, including the placement of the hechal (ark containing the Torahs), the bemah (center platform), and the tebah (reader’s table), with contemporary architecture. Construction began in 1759, and the building was completed four years later in time to be consecrated during Hanukkah in December 1763. Isaac Touro led the service, and people from all of Newport were welcome to attend. Ezra Stiles and other Christian neighborhood leaders attended, formally welcoming the Jews to the community. Thus, in December of this year, Touro Synagogue will celebrate its 250th anniversary!
The Jewish community suffered during the British occupation of Newport during the American Revolution, as did the rest of the town. A Loyalist, Isaac Touro remained in town to oversee the British army’s use of the synagogue as a hospital and meeting space. After the British evacuated in 1779 and by the end of the war, some Jews returned to the town, but the community did not regain its golden age population. Although diminished in number, the Jewish community in Newport was still sizeable and was concerned about its post-Revolutionary status. How would the new American government treat non-Christians, and Jews specifically?
The Jewish community in Newport found itself in a unique position in 1790 because while on a tour of New England, George Washington visited Newport. Taking advantage of this moment, Moses Seixas presented a letter to the new president. The letter acknowledged the historic connection between Jews and Christians, noted that Jews had been denied some rights in the past (they were not considered full citizens and could not vote under the British government), and asked for Jews to be given “liberty of conscience” and full citizenship under the new government.
This was not a particularly unusual request; many religious communities wrote to Washington after he became president. However, Washington’s response to this particular community was more detailed than other responses. His reply thanked the congregation for the letter and assured Newport’s Jewish community that Jews would be treated well in the new nation, stating:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
When looking at this document, it is important to remember that the letter was written to a particular group of people, at a particular moment in time. In other words, if we want to think about this historically, context matters. Washington was not speaking these words into law, or necessarily extending the sentiments beyond the American Jewish community. However, this quote does show his thoughts on how the nation’s policies about liberty related to religion.
Ironically, the Jewish community in Newport did not stay in the area long enough to see whether Washington’s words translated into action. The community diminished shortly after the letter was presented, and only returned in the late 1800s with the arrival of Jewish immigrants.
Although I have tried to cover the highlights of Jewish life in Newport from their arrival until the end of the Revolution, much more can be said on the subject then I could fit into a short blog post. If you are in the area, visit Touro Synagogue yourself to see the building and learn about the community’s history. Otherwise, check out Melvin I. Urofsky’s A Genesis of Religious Freedom: The Story of the Jews of Newport, RI and Touro Synagogue or George M. Goodwin and Ellen Smith’s The Jews of Rhode Island.