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Touring America’s oldest synagogue

The Touro Synagogue was barely 25 years old when George Washingtonoffer­ed a vision of religious tolerance in a letter he sent itscongregants.

The Touro Synagogue was barely 25 years old when George Washington offer­ed a vision of religious tolerance in a letter he sent its congregants.

The new American government, the president wrote in the most famous passage of the 1790 letter, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

A copy of the letter is the highlight of a new $12 million US visitors centre next to the Touro Synagogue, the oldest existing Jewish house of worship in the United States.

The visitors centre details the history of the synagogue, which was dedicated in 1763, but has a broader focus on colonial Jewish history and culture and the principles that guided the nation’s founding, centre curator David Kleiman said.

“There’s a placement in history of the role that this building has played and, more importantly, the role as a living symbol of the concept of religious freedom, separation of church and state,” Kleiman said.

“The building and its history are the embodiment of that concept in America.”

Touro Synagogue, designated a National Historic Site in 1946, maintains an active Orthodox Jewish congregation and still offers tours. But the goal of the visitors centre, 12 years in the making, is to offer even more information in an interactive setting, said Keith Stokes, chairman of the board at the Touro Synagogue Foundation.

“We’ve got this great story and history to share, but we needed to create a platform where everyone felt able to attend and learn,” Stokes said.

Visitors to the centre, which is separated from the synagogue by a grassy park, can scroll through hundreds of images and biographies of early American Jews. Panels detail the origin of the synagogue, its architect and its founding members. Costumed actors play out scenes of colonial life in eight video vignettes projected onto glass.

The centre’s timeline starts before Rhode Island even had a Jewish community.

The first Jewish community in America is generally traced to 1654, when Jews from Recife, Brazil, arrived in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam - today New York City.

In 1658, 15 families of Sephardic Jews travelled to Newport, a bustling waterfront hub in Rhode Island, a colony founded by Roger Williams on the principle of religious freedom. Isaac Touro, a Dutch Jew, arrived 100 years later from Amsterdam and became the congregation’s first spiritual leader.

The congregation bought land, and the synagogue was designed by architect Peter Harrison, who also was responsible for King’s Chapel in Boston.

The synagogue was dedicated Dec. 2, 1763, during Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. It served as a hospital for British soldiers during the Revolutionary War and later as a meeting place for the state legislature and Supreme Court.

In August 1790, Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson paid a goodwill visit to Rhode Island after it became the last of the 13 original colonies to ratify the Constitution.

Washington exchanged letters with the synagogue’s warden, Moses Seixas, who expressed gratitude that the American government “gives to bigotry no sanction,” words Washington would echo in his letter to Newport’s Jewish community in 1790, a year before the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

The letter is “one of the great documents in American history,” said John Loeb, a philanthropist who largely funded the centre and was ambassador to Denmark in the administration of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

But the centre had to settle for a copy of it since the original is under the stewardship of the Jewish advocacy organization B’nai Brith in Washington, D.C., and is owned by a private family that has been reluctant to lend it, Kleiman said.

Stokes, who also is executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, said the visitors centre would enhance the city’s colonial heritage, which jostles for attention alongside images of the city’s Gilded Age mansions and the contemporary yachting culture.

“At the end of the day,” Stokes said, “historic structures and sites and places — historic occurrences —are important, but if you don’t tell it from the perspective of the people the visitor can’t connect with it.”

 
 
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