The Touro Synagogue or Congregation Jeshuat Israel (Hebrew: קהל קדוש ישועת ישראל) is a synagogue built in 1763 in Newport, Rhode Island. It is the oldest synagogue building still standing in the United States,[2][a] the only surviving synagogue building in the U.S. dating to the colonial era, and the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue building in North America.[3] In 1946, it was declared a National Historic Site.[4]

Touro Synagogue National Historic Site
Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island.jpg
Map showing the location of Touro Synagogue National Historic Site
Map showing the location of Touro Synagogue National Historic Site
LocationNewport, Rhode Island, US
Coordinates41°29′22″N 71°18′43″W / 41.48944°N 71.31194°W / 41.48944; -71.31194
Area0.23 acres (0.093 ha)
EstablishedMarch 5, 1946
Governing bodyTouro Synagogue Foundation
Touro Synagogue National Historic Site
Touro Synagogue is located in Rhode Island
Touro Synagogue
Touro Synagogue is located in the United States
Touro Synagogue
Arealess than one acre
Part ofNewport Historic District (ID68000001)
NRHP reference No.66000927[1]
Significant dates
Added to NRHPOctober 15, 1966
Designated NHLDCPNovember 24, 1968

The first congregation was made up of Sephardic Jews, who are believed to have come via the West Indies, where they participated in the triangular trade along with Dutch and English settlements. They practiced a Spanish and Portuguese Jewish liturgy and ritual. In the late eighteenth century, when warfare threatened, the congregation transferred the deed and Torah scrolls to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York for safekeeping. Since the late 19th century, the congregants have been primarily Ashkenazi.

In 2012 the two congregations went to court to try to resolve which owned the synagogue and its contents, as the Newport congregation wanted to sell some items to raise money for restoration of the building. In 2017 the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the New York congregation owned it; as the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case, this ruling stands.


The synagogue's interior

Touro Synagogue was designed by Peter Harrison, a noted British architect and Rhode Island resident. It is considered his most notable work. The interior is flanked by a series of twelve Ionic columns supporting balconies, which signify the twelve tribes of ancient Israel, and each column is carved from a single tree.[5] The building is oriented to face east toward Jerusalem. The ark containing the Torah is on the east wall; above it is a mural representing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew, which was painted by Newport artist Benjamin Howland.

The Touro Synagogue was built from 1759 to 1763 for the Jeshuat Israel congregation in Newport under the leadership of Cantor (Chazzan) Isaac Touro. The cornerstone was laid by Aaron Lopez, a Newport-based philanthropist for Jewish causes who primarily made his fortune through the trading of candles and slaves (Lopez personally financed 30 slave voyages and enslaved almost a thousand Africans),[6] in addition to being involved in the spermaceti candlemaking business and other commercial ventures. The Jeshuat Israel congregation dates to 1658, when 15 Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families arrived, probably from the Dutch or British West Indies. Many settled near Easton's Point.[citation needed] The synagogue was formally dedicated 2 December 1763. Other notable leaders include Abraham Pereira Mendes and Henry Samuel Morais (1900–01).

Judah Touro, the son of Isaac Touro and his wife Reyna, made a fortune as a merchant in New Orleans. He left $10,000 ($330,000 in current dollar terms) in his will for the upkeep of the Jewish cemetery and synagogue in Newport.

In 1946, Touro Synagogue was designated as a National Historic Site,[4] and it is an affiliated area of the National Park Service. The synagogue was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. In 2001, the congregation joined into a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Touro Synagogue is located at 85 Touro Street and remains an active Orthodox synagogue. The building underwent a restoration in 2005–2006,[4] and a recreation of the original dedication ceremony was conducted in 2013 in honor of the 250th anniversary.[4]

Annual recitation of the Washington–Seixas letter on religious pluralismEdit

On August 17, 1790, the day that President George Washington visited Newport, the synagogue's warden, Moses Seixas, wrote to Washington, expressing the support of the Congregation for Washington's administration and good wishes for him.[7]

Washington sent a letter on August 21 in response, which read in part:

... the Government of the United States ... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. ... May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will 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. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

— Letter of George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island[8]

The Touro congregation annually reads President Washington's letter on religious pluralism and celebrates the occasion with invited speakers. They have included Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan;[9] and Brown University presidents Ruth Simmons[10] and Christina Paxson.[11]


The congregation at Newport, never large, was initially composed of Jews with roots in the Sephardic Spanish and Portuguese diaspora, and by the eighteenth century, with some Ashkenazim.

The first Jewish residents of Newport, fifteen Spanish Jewish families, arrived in 1658. It is presumed that they arrived via the communities in Curaçao, home to the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas, dating to 1651, and Suriname. The small community worshiped in rooms in private homes for more than a century before they could afford to build a synagogue.[12]

The community purchased and dedicated the Jewish Cemetery at Newport in 1677.

In the late 1700s, the Jewish community removed the Torah scrolls and sent them for safekeeping, along with the deed to the building, to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. The keys left the Jewish community and were passed to the Goulds, a Quaker family in Newport.

From the 1850s on, the building was occasionally opened for worship for the convenience of summer visitors. It was reopened on a regular basis in 1883 as Jewish life in Newport revived with the late nineteenth century immigration of eastern European Jews (Ashkenazim). The synagogue acquired a nearby building and ran a Hebrew school and other activities. It continues to serve as a thriving congregation with many year-round programs.

Although the congregation has been predominantly Ashkenazi for a century, it is constitutionally obliged[clarification needed] to use the "Sephardic ritual.” It therefore uses the ArtScroll Nusach Sefard prayer book; once a year representatives of the New York Congregation Shearith Israel visit and hold a service in the Spanish and Portuguese style.

Rabbi Dr. Marc Mandel became the rabbi in July 2012. As of 2012, the congregation consists of about 175 families.[13][14]


Restoration of metal artifacts at Touro Synagogue

During 2005 and 2006, Touro Synagogue invested in a restoration project for its valued antique metal artifacts. In total, 150 metal objects, from eighteenth century hardware to European chandeliers and silver rimonim (ceremonial bells used on the Torah), needed to be rebuilt, have their surfaces stabilized, and have missing parts replaced. The project was carried out by the Newport-based restoration company Newmans Ltd.[15]

Ownership controversyEdit

Conflict over the ownership of the Touro building and its contents surfaced in 2012. Newport's Congregation Jeshuat Israel put up for sale ceremonial bells, called rimonim, to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for $7.4 million. New York's Congregation Shearith Israel sued the Newport congregation, saying that Shearith Israel owns the Touro synagogue building and its contents, based on the 18th century transfer of deed. They wanted to evict the Newport congregation from the Touro building and site. In April 2015 both sides of the dispute said several attempts at mediation had failed and they were preparing for trial.[16]

In May 2016 a federal judge ruled on the matter, rejecting Congregation Shearith Israel's claim to oversight. U.S. District Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. noted that "for at least the past 20 years, Shearith Israel has not taken any meaningful action in its capacity as trustee for the Touro Synagogue and lands."[17] In June 2016 Congregation Shearith Israel announced it would appeal the decision.[18] Congregation Shearith Israel was awarded ownership on August 2, 2017 by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston.[19]

On March 18, 2019, the United States Supreme Court declined to take up the case; thus, the lower court ruling that Congregation Shearith Israel owns Touro stands.[20]


See alsoEdit

Explanatory notesEdit

  1. ^ The oldest synagogue in continuous use on U.S. soil as a whole is St Thomas Synagogue in the U.S. Virgin Islands


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010. Retrieved 2013-07-17.
  2. ^ "Rediscovering Jewish Infrastructure: Update on United States Nineteenth Century Synagogues," Mark W. Gordon, American Jewish History 84.1 (1996) 11–27 [1]. 2019 article update.
  3. ^ Buescher, John. "Jewish Immigration During the Revolutionary War.", accessed September 25, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d Sean Flynn (December 1, 2013). "Touro celebrates milestone". The Newport Daily News. Retrieved 18 December 2013.
  5. ^ "Hallelujah! Assemble, Pray, Study – Synagogues Past and Present". Beit Hatfutsot.
  6. ^ Gonzalez, Ana; Nunes, Alex (2 October 2019). "The Irony Of Aaron Lopez, The Merchant Prince Of Newport". NPR. WNPN Public Radio. Retrieved 31 January 2022.
  7. ^ "George Washington Letter".
  8. ^ Letter of George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 1790.
  9. ^ Smith, Andy (18 August 2013). "Newport's Touro Synagogue celebrates its 250th anniversary". The Providence Journal. Archived from the original on 19 August 2014. Retrieved 18 August 2014. Justice Elena Kagan, United States Supreme Court, was the keynote speaker at the 66th Annual George Washington Letter weekend at Touro Synagogue
  10. ^ Coyle, Ann (2007). "Address at Touro Synagogue on President Washington's Letter". News from Brown. Brown University. Retrieved 18 August 2014. Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons delivered the keynote address at the 60th Annual Reading of the George Washington Letter at the nation's oldest synagogue, Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., on Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007
  11. ^ "Paxson delivers keynote address at Touro Synagogue in Newport". News from Brown. Brown University. 2014. Retrieved 18 August 2014. Brown President Christina Paxson delivered the keynote address at the annual reading of President George Washington's Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport on Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, at 1 p.m. in Touro Synagogue.
  12. ^ "Touro Synagogue", Rabbi Theodore Lewis, New Port History, Vol 43, number 159, summer 175
  13. ^ "New Touro Rabbi to Celebrate History at Chanukah". Metro Publisher™.
  14. ^ "Take a Peek Inside America's Oldest Synagogue", Israel National News
  15. ^ Newmans Ltd. Art Restoration
  16. ^ "State to play Solomon in tussle over US’s oldest synagogue", The Times of Israel, 24 April 2015
  17. ^ "Court Rules in Favor of U.S.' Oldest Synagogue in $7.4 Million Legal Battle", Haaretz, May 17, 2016
  18. ^ "NY congregation to appeal ruling on historic Touro Synagogue", JTA, June 14, 2016
  19. ^ Sharon Otterman (August 3, 2017). "New York Congregation Owns Oldest Synagogue in the U.S., 180 Miles Away, Court Rules". New York Times.
  20. ^ "Supreme Court won't intervene in Touro Synagogue dispute". Providence Journal. 2019-03-18. Retrieved 2021-02-05.

External linksEdit