Seeds of religious freedom
“The history of Newport’s Jewish community may not be entirely new to American history buffs, but in general, few Americans know how meaningful a role this small group of colonial citizens played in the vanguard of those who established our country’s religious freedom.”
— Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr., benefactor of the Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue, Newport, R.I.
Historian Melvin I. Urofsky thoroughly makes the argument for the role Newport’s Jews played in the early history of the United States in his new book, “A Genesis of Religious Freedom: The Story of the Jews of Newport, R.I. and Touro Synagogue.”
Not only did they come to Newport seeking religious freedom, but also it is to them that George Washington, the future president of the new republic, would make a written and historic pledge guaranteeing their liberties.
While Urofsky’s thin coffee table book looks at the history of the Jews of Newport and their synagogue, it rightly begins with the history of the Rhode Island colony and its founder, Roger Williams. Contrary to what schoolchildren may learn, its first settlers didn’t necessarily set out to be trailblazers of religious freedom.
“Newport, as we have seen, neither preached nor practiced religious freedom; hardly any place in the world did at that time,” Urofsky writes. “Nonetheless, despite its nominal commitment to being a Christian commonwealth — a commitment that at times did create some unpleasantness for the town’s Jewish residents — the merchants of Newport cared less about what a man believed than how well he behaved in his business dealings.”
Williams, however, strongly opposed state-dictated religious belief. He once declared, “Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”
Jews first arrived in Newport as early as 1658, no doubt after hearing of the fair treatment they could expect there, but Newport’s first permanent Jewish residents didn’t settle until the mid-1700s, building a community of approximately 25 families by the time of the American Revolution.
Jewish fortunes in Newport increased, as the city became a center of commerce and shipping. So much so, that by 1754, its 12 Jewish families organized a congregation, Nefutse Yisrael (Scattered of Israel). Subsequent chapters of the book touch on the first families of the congregation, including the Lopezes, Riveras, Seixases and Levys.
(Loeb, who wrote the introduction to this book, is himself a descendant of some of the earliest Jews to settle in Newport.)
But the Touros — a family of merchants, philanthropists and chazzan (Isaac Touro was the first chazzan of the congregation) are probably the best known of Newport’s Jews, having even leant their name to the historic synagogue.
Urofsky describes in exquisite detail the history behind that synagogue, including its haunting dedication on the first day of Chanuka 1763.
His book is colorfully illustrated and well researched, tracing the rise of the community, its split loyalties during the Revolution, its decline in the 19th century (and rebirth in the 20th), and how poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Emma Lazarus immortalized it in verse.
But no book about Newport Jewry is complete without the famous letter from Washington to the Jewish community, written in 1790, and drafted in response to a message of greeting from Newport Jewish leader Moses Seixas to the president upon his visit to the city.
Here’s what Washington declared:
“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.”
While Americans of later generations didn’t always live up to that statement, according to Urofsky, Washington’s words continue to resonate.
“Although this letter carries with it a unique and cherished significance for American Jewry,” he writes, “in many ways, it is a treasure of the entire nation.”
“A Genesis of Religious Freedom: The Story of the Jews of Newport, R.I. and Touro Synagogue,” by Melvin I. Urofsky, George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, 2013, 117 pages.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)