Sitting in Newport’s Touro Synagogue has a distinctly otherworldly feeling. The nation’s oldest synagogue building, erected in 1763, is full of treasures that predate the Revolutionary War. The 12-branch candelabra and brass ner tamid are two prominent parts of that heritage, and tall candles burn on Shabbat and holidays. On Yom Kippur, the sanctuary is dark except for candles.
Surrounded by magnificent woodwork and adornments, with a cool breeze coming through open windows amidst the Orthodox davening from the synagogue’s bima in the center, it is easy to drift back in time to the 1700s. President George Washington visited this place in 1790 and on a wall elsewhere in the building is a copy of the seminal letter that he wrote the congregation about religious and civil liberties.
This historical idyll has been disrupted in recent years by a bitter dispute between the congregation of Touro, Jeshuat Israel, and the Upper West Side synagogue, Shearith Israel (the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue), which watched over the closed Touro building in fallow years of the 1800s. In May, a federal judge in Providence ruled in favor of Jeshuat Israel, saying Newport’s Jewish community should control the synagogue and its contents. Whatever role Shearith Israel had as trustee and overseer of the Newport building and congregation has long since expired, the judge said.
The decision was welcome news for Newport’s Jewish community and supporters of Touro. Full legal and operating control is logical for a proud and determined local group and could lead to the congregation’s revival. Still, the legal battle is not done — earlier this month, Shearith Israel, on West 70th Street, filed notice that it will appeal to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Touro is a marvel of history and architecture, and thousands tour it each year. Yet it is also a synagogue that operates like most others and has the challenges of others, primarily in getting an adequate membership to support it financially.
In recent decades, the congregation has struggled. With a stagnant local economy and also a lack of kosher food and restaurants, many Touro congregants moved or retired elsewhere. They weren’t replaced by as many younger people and a once-thriving Hebrew school closed for lack of students. Keeping up the synagogue became a strain.
But Touro has been through tough times before. In the 1800s, Jews in Newport dwindled and had to close the synagogue. They needed help to preserve it and turned to Shearith Israel; that assistance was critical in keeping the building. By the 1880s, with the flow of Eastern European Jews starting, Newport’s Jews began to increase again and the synagogue reopened.
For many years, according to most accounts, Shearith Israel’s aid has been small. Touro congregants see Shearith Israel as having no goals besides control. Provoking the current legal fight was the Touro congregation’s attempt to sell decorative Torah bells, valued at $7.4 million, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, to raise money to fund an endowment for the synagogue. Shearith Israel claimed the Colonial-era rimonim belonged to it, and Jeshuat Israel couldn’t sell.
The members of the Touro congregation are the true stakeholders. They have dealt with the ups and downs of the small Jewish community. These days, it is often out-of-town visitors who make it possible to have a minyan — on a recent Shabbat, a family that had come from Oceanside by boat and a group that came from Monsey provided much of the numbers.
Yet locals, many of whose families have been connected for generations, seem intent to lift the synagogue and increase the current membership of about 125 family units. The Hebrew school has been reopened, a tot Shabbat program seems to be gaining momentum, and there are plans for more educational programs.
Touro through time has attracted many visitors from all over, including several American presidents. Emma Lazarus, best known for her poem on the Statue of Liberty, grew up in a family with a house in Newport. Her poem, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” begins:
Here, where the noises of the busy town,
The ocean’s plunge and roar can enter not,
We stand and gaze around with tearful awe,
And muse upon the consecrated spot.
While many come from far away to experience Touro, it seems right that its fate be controlled by those closest and for whom it is a beloved and essential part of life. Future success isn’t guaranteed, but with the community’s history of dedication many great things could be ahead.
Noel Rubinton is a writer and communications consultant based in Providence, R.I.