On December 2, 1763, exactly 250 years ago today, the Touro Synagogue was formally dedicated. The oldest synagogue in the US, located in Newport, Rhode Island, has since earned a beloved spot in Jewish history: its congregation was the recipient of George Washington’s famous “to bigotry no sanction” letter, and still stands today as a symbol of religious tolerance.
When the synagogue was built in 1763, the Jewish community in the whole of the northeast had few options for communal prayer. The decision was made to construct a temple to serve a small but devout population in the area, a building that would be named after Cantor Isaac Touro, spiritual leader of the city.
The first Jewish residents in the region were mainly Sephardic of Spanish and Portuguese descent. Fifteen Jewish families arriving before 1658 are noted as the original founders of the community, which would grow into a thriving population.
The community expanded so quickly that it garnered President Washington’s notice. In 1790, just a year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, Washington wrote to the synagogue on religious freedom, saying in now-famous words, “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… 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.”
Today, the letter is read aloud annually in a prestigious event that draws speakers like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Another highlight at the Orthodox synagogue is a trap door in front of the bima, where tradition states escaped slaves passed through as part of the Underground Railroad.
The synagogue features a visitor’s center, which hosts thousands of tourists a year. The site is still a fully functioning worship hall for the Newport community, and remains a stalwart example of American Jewry from its earliest period.