A Shrine to Religious Liberty

  • Religion
  • 1763

As the oldest extant Jewish house of worship in America, dating from 1763, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, would be famous under any circumstances. But Touro’s place in history was cemented when George Washington visited Newport to drum up support for passage of the Bill of Rights. The warden of the synagogue sent Washington a welcoming message, and, in return, the newly ensconced head of state penned a 340-word response.

In his note, Washington unveiled a glimmering vision of a nation where citizens of all faiths abide together under a government that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Closing with imagery straight from the Old Testament, he expressed his wish that “the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” The father of his country was well aware that Americans would not overlook his gesture towards this small, frequently persecuted minority, and his letter became a seminal document in the history of American religious freedom, cited by judges, politicians, and philosophers.

Supporters of the Touro Synagogue have sustained the facility for two and a half centuries. The name comes from two sons of an early prayer leader who made a series of gifts over several decades to maintain and expand the worship hall and its grounds (in the process establishing themselves among the first great American philanthropists). Abraham Touro bequeathed large funds to maintain the building and the street it sits on, after having previously built a wall around the adjoining Jewish cemetery. His brother, Judah Touro, gave several gifts of his own, plus a large grant in his will to preserve the facility (amidst many other donations he made to Jewish and non-Jewish charities around the U.S.—see 1854 entry).

In a nice twist of philanthropic genealogy, it was yet another descendant of the Touro family—financier John Loeb—who funded the new visitor’s center built next to the synagogue in 2009. The exhibit-filled building is a shrine to religious liberty and to George Washington. The associated George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom extends the mission of the Touro Synagogue, reinforcing respect for faith among the next generation of Americans.

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