The oldest synagogue in America is 70 miles from my home, so it was a given that at some point I would make the trip. On Friday night, prodded by the congregation’s website that seemed to indicate that services would end on March 6, I rushed to Newport after work, taking a phone call on the way.
Rhode Island’s reputation for religious tolerance in the face of intense intolerance by the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies is renowned — fostered by the liberal attitudes of Rhode Island’s founding governor Roger Williams, who also established the nation’s first Baptist church. Touro is the only example of a Colonial synagogue, the oldest Jewish structure in America and, as I said, the oldest synagogue. Visiting was a privilege, because if not for this project I doubt I would have had cause or inclination to set foot inside other than to admire the historical furnishings and architecture. As it was, I witnessed a moving, solemn orthodox shabbas service, met my first shabbas goy, and had a good historical experience.
The Jeshuat Israel congregation can be traced back to 1658 when Sephardic Jews arrived in Newport (then the capital of Rhode Island) from the Caribbean island of Curacao. Sephardic Jews emigrated — fled is more accurate — Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition, when Catholic jurists forced the conversion of or put to death most Jews. An excellent, if exhaustive history on this topic is B. Netanyahu’s Origins of the Inquisition in the 15th Century. Those Jews who pretended to convert to Christianity, but continued to practice Judaism in secret, are referred to as Marranos.
For the first 100 years of their existence, the Newport Sephardim worshipped in private homes until 1750, when a wealthy merchant, Aaron Lopez, son of Portugese marranos, funded the design and construction of the Touro Synagogue (so named for its first cantor, Issac Touro). Lopez became the wealthiest resident of Newport through his diverse business interests, but most notably his focus on the spermaceti candle industry — spermaceti being the waxy substance found in the head cavity of a sperm whale.