On August 18, 1790, George Washington paid a visit to Newport, Rhode Island, shortly after the state had ratified the United States Constitution, to meet with politicians, businessmen and clergy—including Moses Seixas, an official of Congregation Jeshuat Israel. Seixas read aloud a letter in Washington’s honor, lauding the government’s promise of religious liberty. Four days later, Washington responded, addressing his letter to the “Hebrew Congregation in Newport.”
“For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” Washington wrote, “requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” It was a moment that reflected the spirit of the former colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, chartered in 1663 to guarantee “full liberty in religious commitments.” It was the home of the colonies’ second—following New York—Jewish community.
A small number of Sephardic traders from Barbados were among the first to arrive in the future Ocean State. After their eventual departure—the circumstances of which are hazy—they were followed by another group, large enough at least to warrant cartographic evidence: One 1712 map displays a “Jews Street,” now folded into present-day Newport’s Bellevue Avenue.
But it wasn’t until the mid-1700s that Newport’s Jewish community began to thrive. Trade—including slaves—brought wealth and new members. In 1763, the colony’s first synagogue was completed for Jeshuat Israel; it would later be called Touro Synagogue in honor of its first religious leader, Isaac Touro. (There were no rabbis in the colonies.) The building was designed by Newport architect Peter Harrison to resemble the Sephardic synagogues in London and Amsterdam, but it also took architectural cues from other classical, columned buildings of Newport, which would later become known for its grand mansions and summer homes. “Like Newport’s Jews themselves, the synagogue blended with the neighborhood and the religious landscape,” write historians Ellen Smith and Jonathan Sarna in The Jews of Rhode Island, “but made its presence known.” By the 1770s, Newport’s Jewish community was 200 strong.
Jewish life flourished in all arenas except the political, where Jews encountered the same discrimination common in the rest of the colonies. But they didn’t stay quiet: In this early period, Jewish merchants Aaron Lopez and Isaac Elizer applied for citizenship at a Rhode Island court (though they were rejected). Moses Michael Hays—Isaac Touro’s brother-in-law—withheld his signature from a declaration of colonial loyalty until the phrase “upon the true faith of a Christian” was excised from its text.
Economic decline and the specter of British occupation and war drove out the Jews of Newport. But even after the last Jew departed (Moses Lopez in 1822), a $15,000 bequest from Isaac Touro’s son, Abraham, ensured the maintenance of the city’s Jewish cemetery and the synagogue. The synagogue was designated a National Historic Site by the Department of the Interior in 1946 and stands today as the oldest surviving synagogue building in North America. And it inspired an 18-year-old Emma Lazarus, whose family kept a summer home in Newport, to pen “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport” in 1867.
Jews—this time mostly Ashkenazi immigrants fleeing persecution in Central and Eastern Europe—would soon come ashore again in Rhode Island starting in the 1830s and 1840s, this time settling in Providence. In 1878, the first census of the American Jewish community tallied the Jewish population of Rhode Island at 1,000; their ranks included peddlers, tailors, clerks, grocers, shoemakers, junk dealers, even doctors and a librarian. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the state’s booming textile mills and jewelry industry also attracted Jews. Among their ranks were brothers Hillel and Henry Hassenfeld, who got their start selling textile remnants and pencil boxes as Hasbro, Inc. in 1923—the future toy-making giant responsible for Mr. Potato Head.
By 1920, the Jews of Providence had established 20 congregations, often organized by their members’ country of origin. Outside the historical anchors of Newport and Providence, communities have been established in the smaller cities of Pawtucket, Bristol, Smithfield, Woonsocket and Westerly. The state’s Jewish population peaked at 30,000 in 1937 and has since declined to about 18,000. Characteristics such as a low intermarriage and divorce rate give the Rhode Island Jewish community the feel of a traditional small town, write Smith and Sarna, while historian George M. Goodwin writes of Providence: “Generations of local marriages have produced a vast cousinhood or a never-ending high school reunion.”
Centuries after Aaron Lopez and Isaac Elizer’s citizenship bids were stymied, Jews have been elected to many of Rhode Island’s government offices, starting with Isaac Hahn’s election as the first Jewish state representative in 1884. Since then, three attorneys general and two governors—Frank Licht and Bruce Sundlun—have been Jews. The first openly gay mayor of an American state capital—Providence, Rhode Island—was David Cicilline, a Jew now serving Rhode Island’s 1st district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Today, the Touro Synagogue is an active Orthodox synagogue with about 125 member families. It has also recently made headlines: A pair of silver rimonim—Torah bells—are at the center of a bitter legal fight between Touro and New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel. Money troubles prompted Touro to consider selling the historic bells to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2012. But Shearith Israel—the oldest congregation in the country, to which many of Rhode Island’s first Jews originally belonged and which has technically owned Touro since 1894—has laid claim to the bells and stepped in to stop the sale. A months-long ownership trial came to a close in September, when the federal judge overseeing it acknowledged the case’s complexity and said it will be “a while” before he decides the bells’ fate.
Providence remains the heart of a dedicated Jewish community. In 2011, the state’s three major Jewish organizations—the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, the Bureau for Jewish Education and the Jewish Community Center—merged to form the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island to better address the community’s needs. A $500,000 Holocaust memorial sculpture garden was just unveiled in downtown Providence this summer. In two years, the Touro Fraternal Organization—the largest independent Jewish fraternal order in the Northeast—will celebrate its centennial. And the 44-year-old JCC is undergoing an extensive $6 million renovation. “Our community is very special; it’s very close-knit,” says Jeffrey Savit, president and CEO of the Alliance. “I pride myself on overseeing a jewel of the Jewish community.”—Anna Isaacs
Touro Synagogue & Loeb Visitor Center
Located in Newport, the Touro Synagogue is the oldest synagogue building in the United States and is designated as a National Historic Site. The building dates back to 1763 and was visited by President George Washington on August 18, 1790. Washington sent a letter to the congregation following his visit assuring the protection of religious liberty and pluralism in the United States. Tours of both the synagogue and visitor center are welcomed.
Congregation Sons of Jacob is the last remaining synagogue in the Smith Hill area of Providence, a once-thriving Jewish community. The Orthodox congregation recently celebrated its 119th anniversary. The main sanctuary, adorned with hand-painted murals, was completed in 1922 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial
The Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial includes the Entrance Gate, Path, Life Stone and Memorial Columns. The memorial honors those who perished in the Holocaust and serves as a tribute to Rhode Island’s Holocaust survivors. Designed by local artist Jonathan Bonner, the memorial is located on the Providence River Walk between the World War I and World War II Memorials. Self-guided and guided tours are available.
Sponsored by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, gallery (401) explores Jewish culture, featuring contemporary artists and a wide variety of visual media with rotating exhibits throughout the year.