The First Jews

The 17th century was an era of exploration, immigration and innovation. For Jews, persecuted and restricted in many countries, America seemed like a good place to settle. The town of Newport, Rhode Island, founded in 1639, soon attracted settlers of all religious denominations.1 Though small in number, the Jews who settled Rhode Island established one of the first Jewish communities in America, and by the end of the century, there were Jewish communities up and down the Atlantic coast.

Construction of the Touro Synogogue began in 1759 and was finished in 1763
Construction of the Touro Synogogue began in 1759 and was finished in 1763

How They Came

When the Spanish Inquisition expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492, Jews were forbidden to live on Spanish soil, including the Spanish colonies in South America. When Jews were expelled from Portugal in 1508, the expulsion was not fully applied to their colony, Brazil. However, there were people who searched out the hidden Jews in Brazil and sent them back to Lisbon to be tried. At the same time, Jews were being sent from Portugal to Brazil as a punishment for practicing Judaism in Portugal. Even when the Spanish took control of Brazil in 1580, they were not able to fully implement forced conversions or expel the Jews there. And so, while Jewish life in Brazil was not entirely impossible, it was far from ideal.

The Dutch were more accepting of the Jews, and many Jews were employed in the Dutch East India Company. So when Holland captured Bahia, Brazil, from Portugal in 1624, about 200 Jews moved there. This city was recaptured by the Portuguese the following year, and most of its Jewish population moved to Recife, Brazil, when it was taken by the Dutch in 1631.2

Heading North

Rhode Island saw its first Jews as early as 1658, though historians disagree on the exact date. These Jews came from Recife after the Portuguese retook parts of Brazil from the Dutch and enforced the laws of the Inquisition. First finding their way to the islands of Suriname, Barbados, Curaçao and Jamaica, these Jews eventually made their way to Newport.3

There were no more than 15 Jewish people to first arrive in Newport, but they soon set up the institutions that were necessary for Jewish communal life.

The picturesque Rhode Island shoreline
The picturesque Rhode Island shoreline

Jewish Communal Life

Soon after the arrival of this small group of Jews, a minyan was established, and daily services were held in private homes until the mid-to-late 1700s. The congregation was called Yeshuat Israel—Salvation of Israel.

In 1677, the fledgling community (most notably members Mordechai Campanal and Moses Israel Paeheco) purchased land for a Jewish cemetery, which today sits at the corner of Kay and Touro Streets. This is the oldest known Jewish cemetery in North America.4

The Jewish community of Newport grew when a group of new immigrants arrived from one of the West Indian Islands on August 24, 1694. The population of Newport flourished during the 18th century, with hundreds of Jews moving into the area and developing new industries, such as the sperm-oil and candle trade. Other industries included distilleries, sugar refineries, rope-works, and furniture factories.

Because of the Jewish population growth in this century, an official synagogue building began to be constructed in 1759 and was finished in 1763.5

The Jews of Newport adhered closely to Jewish law. These immigrants may have used the nearby ocean as a mivkah, as many historians say colonial Jews did,but they might also have also built a mikvah near the synagogue.6

Revolutionary War

The Jews of Newport, and the gentiles around them, prospered financially and experienced peace in the years before the American Revolution. But, because of Newport’s location on the water, and the revolutionary activity taking place there, it was a prime target for the British once the revolution began in earnest in 1776. Most Jewish families left for places such as Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. Those who remained were subjected to British rule.7 While Newport had been one of the five leading ports in North America, along with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, it never regained its level of commercial prominence after the exodus of industry and workers with the Revolutionary War.8

Isaac Touro, who maintained and watched over Newport’s synagogue, remained behind during the evacuation. The building became a hospital for the British military and a public assembly hall. Because of the long, cold winters, British troops tore down buildings to use the wood for fires, but the synagogue was saved because of its use as a hospital. The troops left the town in October 1779, and within a year or two some Jewish families returned.9

George Washington’s Visit

George Washington, along with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, visited Newport on August 17, 1790. Washington spoke to the leading citizens and representatives of the many religious denominations present in the city, including the Jews. Moses Seixas, one of the officials of Yeshuat Israel, addressed the president with words of gratitude and asked him to ensure the Jews’ continued freedom:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.

In response to this greeting, Washington replied to the various communities in Newport. One of his first letters was to the Jewish community. He wrote:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which 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. . . .

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.10

This was a very important moment in the history of Jewish religious freedom in America. Jews were given the freedom to practice their culture and faith, creating a safe haven for the Jews of the world.

The letter sent by President George Washington to the Jews of Newport
The letter sent by President George Washington to the Jews of Newport

The In-Between Years

Despite this great event, the number of Jews in Newport decreased, and the synagogue was eventually closed. Jews did visit the town, and were sometimes buried there, but did not settle the area. The Touro family left money for the upkeep of the synagogue and the cemetery. A local Quaker, Stephen Gould, who was a good friend of many Jews who had lived in Newport, was hired as the caretaker. Legal oversight of the building, its contents and its deed was transferred to Congregation Shearith Israel of New York.11

While vacationing with his family in Newport in 1852, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came across the Jewish cemetery in Newport and wrote a poem, "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport." In it he describes the absence of Jews in Newport and the upkeep of graves of those that once lived there:

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.12


But history proved Longfellow wrong. Before the end of the 19th Century, Newport was once again home to a thriving Jewish community. Most of the newcomers were of European descent—from Germany, Poland and Russia.

Revitalized, the synagogue was renamed Touro Synagogue in honor of the man who had cared to preserve it more than 100 years earlier.13

Like other communities, the Jewish community of Newport was interested in national affairs and in supporting their country. In 1897, a group of young Jewish men from Newport, known as the “Touro Cadets,” organized themselves to fight in the Spanish-American war.14

Modern History

In 1946, Touro Synagogue was designated a National Historic Site. There are currently about 200 Jewish families who live full-time on Aquidneck Island, where Newport is located. Every year the Touro Foundation sponsors an educational lecture series and holds a public reading of George Washington’s letter. The synagogue is still in use and is visited by thousands of tourists yearly.15

Even as the local Jewish community remains small, many thousands of Jews visit Newport every summer—including Torah observant owners of yachts who dock in Newport and walk to the historic synagogue for Shabbat services.

The inside of the synagogue evokes an image of colonial America
The inside of the synagogue evokes an image of colonial America

Since the early 1980’s, “Roving Rabbis” have made the island community their home every summer through the efforts of Rabbi Yehoshua Laufer, the Chabad representative to Rhode Island. The “Roving Rabbis” provide Jewish services, supplies and information to visitors and locals alike.

In 1984, at the directive of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—Rabbi Laufer printed the Tanya in the Touro Synagogue, as well as in Warwick, Providence, Pawtucket and Cranston. (His son, Rabbi Aryeh Laufer, recently completed printing 100 Tanyas in every city in Rhode Island.)

In 2006, Rabbi Moshe and Mirel Laufer established a Chabad center to service the Jews of the East Bay of Rhode Island—including Newport.

The Chabad House of Newport, which operates during the summer, gives visitors, locals and training sailors from the nearby naval base the opportunity to connect to their Jewish roots and receive Jewish services. In fact, it has allowed some to taste Jewish tradition and experience Judaism for the very first time.

Now well into its fourth century, the Jewish community of Newport remains strong, a shining example of Jewish vitality and commitment.