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America’s Oldest Synagogue Wrestles With Court Battle and Its Own Decline

Rabbi Marc Mandel’s voice filled Touro Synagogue one recent Saturday morning, drifting past the wooden columns that line the basilica and rising toward the women’s gallery, just as the voices of baalei tefillah, or prayer leaders, did 250 years ago.

Tourists stream through this, the oldest synagogue in America, five days a week. But it is during services that this majestic colonial building comes to life.

Two days earlier, on June 11, a federal judge wrapped up a two-week trial, held in Providence, Rhode Island, that could determine the fate of this synagogue as a living, breathing house of worship.

Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which prays at Touro Synagogue, is suing for the right to sell a pair of 17th-century silver ceremonial bells to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The bells, which normally adorn the handles of a Torah scroll, are worth an estimated $7.4 million.

Jeshuat Israel, which is losing congregants and struggling financially, says it needs the money to set up an irrevocable trust to ensure its financial survival.

Standing in the congregation’s way is Congregation Shearith Israel, of New York, the oldest congregation in America, founded in 1654, which says that it owns the bells and Newport’s synagogue building.

The spectacle of two icons of American Jewish history haranguing each other in federal court has drawn national media attention, causing angst and embarrassment among many of Newport’s Jews. “What a black mark on the Jewish community of North America in general,” Robert Friedman, who was born and raised in Newport but who now lives in Florida, told me.

The trial is more than a breakdown in communication. It is a symptom of a much larger problem, which is that Newport’s Jewish community is slowly dying.

It is a deathbed scene familiar to Jewish communities in small towns and cities across America.

A once thriving community falls on hard times. Children grow up, leave for college and never return. The few young families that do remain are not interested in joining a synagogue.

But Newport is different.

Home to legendary folk and jazz festivals, international regattas and Golden Age mansions, Newport remains a vibrant, desirable place to live.

It is different, too, because Newport is one of just six colonial Jewish congregations, alongside Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; Philadelphia, and New York.

If Jewish life disappears here — as well it could — a piece of American Jewish history dies with it.

Touro, dedicated in 1793, is the oldest synagogue in America. Image by Paul Berger

When Friedman’s mother, Phyllis “Chickie” Friedman, thinks about the possibility of Touro Synagogue standing empty on a Sabbath morning, she feels sad not just for Newport’s Jews, but also for the entire American Jewish community.

“I feel very sad in particular for the people who are missing the experience of being there, because it’s — there’s an atmosphere in that synagogue you don’t get anywhere else,” Friedman says.

Friedman, who is 86, sits in the lounge of Blenheim-Newport senior living facility trying to find the words to describe the atmosphere inside Touro Synagogue. She still attends services every week that she is able.

Her milky blue eyes stare into the middle distance as she reaches into her memory to describe what it is like to sit in that sanctuary designed by the renowned colonial architect Peter Harrison and painted in colonial green. “It’s not grander,” she says. Then she pauses and, almost in a whisper, her voice trails off: “I don’t know what it is.”

Finally, Friedman says: “Maybe it’s history, because our history is written into that synagogue.”

By “our history,” Friedman means American Jewish history. She says that the leaders of the congregation, including her husband, who served multiple stints as board member and president, and who died in January, “were doing it not just for themselves, but for the future. So we would leave something that has meaning.”

The Newport Jewish community’s disappearance is not only conceivable, it’s happened twice before.

The city sits on the southernmost tip of Aquidneck Island, jutting out into Narragansett Bay.

The first Jews arrived here in 1655 from Barbados, but after just 30 years the community fizzled.

The next community put down roots in the 1730s, and this time they held.

Both groups of Jews were Sephardim, who traced their roots to Spain and Portugal and to ancestors who had been persecuted and expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisitions of the late 15th century.

With names like Aaron Lopez and Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, they made fortunes in shipping, candle-making and banking.

On the first day of Hanukkah, in 1763, a procession of congregants and non-Jewish dignitaries wound through Newport’s streets following three Torah scrolls bound for the consecration of what would become known as Touro Synagogue.

The celebrations were to be short-lived.

Legacy: Moses Seixas is buried in the old Jewish cemetery at Newport. His address to George Washington, in 1790, inspired the president's famous 'Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island.' Image by Paul Berger

During the Revolutionary War, Newport was attacked and occupied. The city’s population, about 9,000 people, fell to about 4,000 people, and its industries were devastated.

The synagogue was one of the few public buildings to survive the damage, but its congregation never recovered.

Most Jews left the city before the revolution. After the revolution, Newport’s economy was so battered that there was little point in returning.

The event for which Newport Jewry is best known, the visit of George Washington, came at one of its darkest hours.

Washington visited Rhode Island in 1790. The warden of the synagogue’s much-diminished congregation, Moses Seixas, presented Washington with an address congratulating him on his recent election victory and asking for his assurance that Jews would be free to practice their religion in the fledgling United States of America.

Washington’s reply, in which he pledged that America would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” is widely regarded as his most eloquent treatise on religious liberty.

Yet just 30 years after Washington’s visit, Newport’s Jewish community expired. The keys to Touro Synagogue and the deed to the building were given to Shearith Israel.

It took 60 years and an influx of Eastern European Jews before Jewish life was rekindled in Newport in the late 1800s.

By the turn of the 20th century, two rival Newport congregations fought for the right to pray at Touro Synagogue.

Shearith Israel helped the two congregations merge, and in 1903 it leased the building to the newly formed Congregation Jeshuat Israel for a nominal rent of $1 per year.

Joshua Nemtzow arrived in Newport with his parents in 1918 when he was 1 year old.

Now 97, Nemtzow remembers how during the 1920s and ’30s most Jews lived close to the center of the city off Broadway, on Burnside Avenue and Kingston Avenue. They were mostly merchant families, running grocery stores or similar businesses.

Nemtzow’s father, Harry Nemtzow, owned a hay and grain store. After the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many farmers went out of business, he moved into the furniture business and later sold paints.

Nemtzow estimates that between the first and second world wars there were about 200 Jewish families in the city, enough to support two kosher butchers and a second, smaller Orthodox synagogue, Ahavas Achim, which prayed in a red brick synagogue a few blocks from Touro.

Nemtzow said Ahavas Achim’s founders were drawn from the older generation, who looked down on Touro Synagogue as “not Orthodox enough” because Jeshuat Israel’s rabbi gave his sermon in English.

Vibrant: Newport's United Hebrew School poses for its 1963-'64 portrait. Rabbi Theodore Lewis, a towering presence for almost four decades, is seated fifth from left in the second row from the front. Image by Courtesy of Joshua Nemtzow

The Jewish community continued to grow through the 1940s and into the ’50s, when the U.S. Navy made Newport the base for the Atlantic Fleet’s Cruiser-Destroyer force.

The Navy brought hundreds of families to Newport, quite a few of them Jewish. The ships also provided ample floating opportunities for such Jewish-owned businesses as liquor supply, clothing, furniture and printing.

Phyllis Friedman, who arrived in Newport during the late 1940s, recalled that during the 1950s and ’60s it was difficult to join Touro because the sanctuary was often almost at capacity and seats in the women’s gallery were in short supply.

In those days, “the Irish rabbi,” Theodore Lewis, led the congregation “

Tall and imposing, with a thick Irish brogue, Lewis was as popular among the Irish Catholics in Newport’s Fifth Ward as he was in the city’s thriving Jewish community.

In addition to being the rabbi, Lewis was the principal of Newport’s burgeoning United Hebrew School, which was run under the auspices of Touro Synagogue.

It is true that even during this heyday, some of the younger generation were lured elsewhere after college. But it wasn’t until 1973, and President Richard Nixon’s decision to move the Cruiser-Destroyer force out of Newport, that opportunities for ambitious young Jews shrank severely.

Overnight, the prime driver of Newport’s economy was gone.

During the decades that followed, Newport put greater emphasis on tourism, which was mostly seasonal and low-paid work.

To make matters worse, Newport’s desirable location as a resort for summer homes pushed up house prices, making life for working families less and less affordable.

Rabbi Marc Jagolinzer recently marked 40 years as spiritual leader of Aquidneck’s sole Conservative congregation, Temple Shalom. His synagogue is located about 3 miles outside Newport, in Middletown, an area that became popular for Jews decades ago as they were priced out of Newport.

During his early years in Middletown, Jagolinzer doubled and then tripled the size of his congregation, which peaked during the 1990s with 150 families. During the past 15 years, he has witnessed a steep decline. Today, he has fewer than 100 families, most of them elderly.

Jagolinzer says the departure of the Navy is not solely to blame. He believes there are at least 300 Jewish families on the island, but many of them simply do not join synagogues, as their parents’ generation did.

Dwindling Flock: Rabbi Marc Jagolinzer of Temple Shalom, in nearby Middletown, has seen his congregation expand and contract during the 40 years he has served the community. Image by Paul Berger

It’s a scenario that is playing out in Newport’s churches, too.

The Rev. John McNulty, of St Augustin’s Catholic Church, in Newport, said his congregation has shrunk from 750 families 20 years ago to fewer than 550 families today. “A lot of these families are widows and widowers,” McNulty said.

He blamed the lack of decent paying jobs as well as rising property prices for squeezing out working families. McNulty said that property prices have risen so much that most buyers these days are wealthy families from New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania looking for a second home.

The changing demographics are mirrored in the Newport public school district, which has shrunk to about 2,000 school children today from about 3,000 in 1998.

“The children of the people who are the bedrock families in this community go away to college and they don’t come back,” Jim Gillis, a columnist at The Newport Daily News, told me. He said that this year 114 students graduated from the city’s high school. During the 1970s, that number would have been closer to 450.

Touro’s congregation declined to speak on the record to me for this story, citing the ongoing court case. U.S. District Judge John McConnell has asked both sides to submit post-trial briefs. He has scheduled closing arguments for July 20.

I attended services at Touro on a Friday night and Saturday morning.

About 15 people attended the Friday night service. They included a couple from the United Kingdom who were on vacation in Newport and who wanted to experience the synagogue at prayer.

During the summer months, Touro gets lots of tourist congregants, as well as second homeowners who want to attend services. During July and August, Touro has a morning minyan every day of the week.

On the Saturday morning I was in town, about 80 people attended services, the majority of them out-of-town guests who had come for a wedding celebration — or aufruf — of an elderly couple who were getting married that weekend.

Perhaps fittingly, the bride and groom were from out of town. too. They live 80 miles away. in Newton, Massachusetts, and like many other couples these days, they had chosen Newport because of the location and the symbolism of a wedding at Touro Synagogue.

Touro occupies a hilltop position, like an ancient lighthouse, looking out to sea.

During the service, light streamed in through the round-headed windows, and a sea breeze blew in through the open double doors.

As noted by an earlier Forward reporter, who visited in 2009, Jewish communities “have come and gone from Newport like the tide.”

Even with the slow fading-out of this latest Jewish community — Newport’s longest lasting one, at 135 years — the old synagogue built by Sephardic Jews 250 years ago will endure, ready to accept the next wave of Jewish immigrants, wherever they are from.

Contact Paul Berger at [email protected] or on Twitter, @pdberger

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