Touro Synagogue Turns 250 With ‘Order and Decorum'

Oldest U.S. Shul Marks Major Milestone in Newport

On the Block: A 1790 reprint of Moses Seixas’s letter to George Washington will be auctioned on December 10.
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On the Block: A 1790 reprint of Moses Seixas’s letter to George Washington will be auctioned on December 10.

By Paul Berger

Published November 29, 2013, issue of December 06, 2013.
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On December 2, 1763, the first day of Hanukkah, a procession wound through Newport, R.I., carrying three Torah scrolls bound for their new home in a synagogue that would quickly establish its place in American Jewish lore.

When the scrolls entered the newly built Touro Synagogue, their arrival was celebrated with music and prayer that moved even the non-Jews among those assembled.

“The Order and Decorum, the Harmony & Solemnity of the Musick, together with a handsome Assembly of People, in an Edifice the most perfect of the Temple kind perhaps in America… could not but raise in the Mind a faint Idea of the Majesty & Grandeur of the Ancient Jewish Worship mentioned in Scripture,” the Rev. Ezra Stiles wrote in his diary of that day.

Two hundred and fifty years later, on December 1, the congregation that worships at that same synagogue will celebrate this historic occasion with its own procession through Newport and a rededication ceremony that will hew as closely as possible to the original.

“We have a record of what took place 250 years ago that makes it relatively easy for us,” Rabbi Marc Mandel of Touro Synagogue said, referring to Stiles’s diaries. “We don’t have to guess.”

Touro, the oldest synagogue in America and a classic of colonial architecture, is best known for its links to George Washington’s famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation, in Newport.

Washington visited Newport three decades after Touro’s dedication ceremony, in August 1790.

Washington’s letter to the Newport congregation, in which he pledged that the fledgling government of the United States would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” is generally regarded as his most eloquent treatise on religious liberty.

Documents associated with the letter are much sought after by collectors today, not least because contemporary printings of Washington’s letter in Rhode Island newspapers, the Newport Mercury and the Providence Journal, have gone missing from the Newport Historical Society and other local collections. “Someone went around town stealing these pages out of libraries and archives,” said Ruth Taylor, executive director of Newport Historical Society.

Moses Seixas, the warden of Touro Synagogue, was responsible for corresponding with Washington on behalf of the congregation.


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