MUSE students regularly visit America’s oldest Synagogue, Touro Synagogue and the Loeb Visitor’s Center, in downtown Newport. The real excitement of visiting the colonial era synagogue, justly renowned as one of architect Peter Harrison’s most beautiful buildings, stems from the fact that today it’s original purpose is still fulfilled as an active worship place for it’s congregation. Yet there is so much more about Touro Synagogue to take in.
The beautiful and modern museum experience in the Loeb Visitors Center on the grounds of the Synagogue tells the early story of the Jewish congregation which found a safe place in colonial Newport. Newport since its founding was a place of religious tolerance, with a number of different faiths having houses of worship all in proximity to the center of the city.
The students learn of the founding events that led to Newport becoming a safe haven for the Jewish settlers, such as Roger Williams making clear distinctions between religious practice and civic matters at Rhode Island’s founding, and the 1663 Rhode Island Charter in which John Clarke secured the blessing of King Charles II to “hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil State may stand and best be maintained, with a full liberty of religious concernments.”
Much attention is paid to the letters that were exchanged in 1790 between leaders of the congregation and George Washington, in which Washington penned the indelible words, “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
The Touro Synagogue experience then, is much like the Rhode Island experience. The living history of this wonderful building, Newport’s precepts of religious tolerance, the wall of separation between religion and state, and Rhode Island’s early guarantees of liberty of conscience and faith and the right to freely express the same in voice and in print that would eventually become a cornerstone of the United States Constitution, all come together in our visit to Touro. These lessons have as much resounding meaning for today’s students as they did for the state’s early colonists.