Historic Touro Synagogue Forced to Cancel Public Tours


touro-synagogueTouro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the nation’s oldest shul, has canceled public tours because of financial difficulties. The last two paid staff members were let go last week. Plans to open a museum of American Jewish history at the site this summer will go forward. Group tours already scheduled for the summer will take place, but no new ones will be booked, said a spokesman for the non-profit foundation that runs the project.

Newport, Rhode Island, is one of the most popular destinations for frum residents in the Tri-State area looking to get away for a few days or a week during the summer or any time of the year. The beautiful mansions and scenic boat rides remain focal points of a tourist’s visit to the town, but, undoubtedly, one of the highlights of the trip to Newport is visiting the historic Touro Synagogue, the oldest shul in North America and beyond. 

Completed in the year 1763, the Touro Synagogue is a National Historic Site, which draws thousands of Jews each year.

Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz, rov of the Touro Synagogue, says that most people who come to daven at the shul are visitors and tourists. He says that approximately 30,000 Yidden come to daven in the shul each year.

In the spring of 1658, fifteen Spanish Portuguese Jewish families arrived in Newport. Historians are not in agreement as to the point of origin of these early Jewish settlers. Some are of the opinion that they came from Holland, others believe that they came from New York. The view most widely held, however, is that they came from Curacao, in the West Indies. These Jews, some of whom were Marranos, wanted to start a new life in a land where they could live as free people and practice Yiddishkeit without hindrance or fear. They believed this to be possible in the Colony of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations because of the assurance of freedom of religion and liberty of conscience promised by Governor Roger Williams to all who came within its borders.

In 1658, Congregation Yeshuas Yisroel, later to become known as the Touro Synagogue, was founded.

On February 28, 1677, the Jewish Community of Newport purchased land for use as a bais hakevaros.

In the 1680s, the Jewish community of Newport numbered eight families, and in addition to the bais hakevaros, created a school to educate their children. Isaac de Touro arrived from Amsterdam in 1758 to lead the kehillah. His sons, Abraham and Judah Touro, were later to be major benefactors of the shul. Abraham Touro left $10,000 in his will for the State of Rhode Island to use for the care of the shul, which is how the shul got its name as the “Touro Synagogue.”

For a hundred years, the members of the kehillah, few in number and modest in means, davened in private homes. But by 1759, the Congregation had sufficiently increased to undertake the building of a shul. As this was an ambitious undertaking, beyond the means of the community, an appeal was addressed to other congregations for funds. Completion of the shul building took four years.

Under the leadership of Isaac Touro, the ground was broken for the shul on August 1, 1759.

The shul was dedicated during Chanukah, on December 2, 1763. Peter Harrison, who had by then designed several exceptional buildings, donated his services as architect.

Touro Synagogue was founded as a Sephardic kehillah. From the time of the Revolutionary War until 1880, the building was used as a shul on an intermittent basis due to the small number of members of the Jewish community residing there on a permanent basis. Following the Revolutionary War, the shul building was actually used as a court house, state house and town hall. Since 1880, the building has been in continuous use as a shul.

In 1946, Congress proclaimed Touro Synagogue a National Historic Site.

Seven years ago, the Touro Synagogue joined the collection of the National Trust for Historic Preservation as the 1st religious building to enter the Trust’s collection of 21 distinguished properties.

And now, in the 21st century, the shul continues to serve as a gathering point for Yidden from all over the world visiting Newport, Rhode Island.           

Rabbi Eskovitz became rov of the shul 10 years ago, during the summer of 1996. He was chosen from 22 other applicants vying for the position. Rabbi Eskovitz hails from Old Forge, a suburb of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and spent years working in chinuch in Atlanta, Kansas City, Chicago, and Redding, Pennsylvania, before settling in Newport a decade ago.

Rabbi Eskovitz took over for Rabbi Chaim Shapiro who had served as rov since 1986. Prior to that, Rabbi Theodore Lewis, a talmid of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Europe, had served as rov from 1949 until 1985.

Currently, the minyanim on Shabbos and Yom Tov, says Rabbi Eskovitz, are comprised of members of the shul. At other times, the minyanim consist primarily of visitors.

Over the years, says Rabbi Eskovitz, he has seen such a diverse group of visitors to the shul, many on differing levels of religiosity.

The current Jewish community in Newport is small. There are about 600 members of the Jewish community who live in Newport County.

There are no kosher restaurants in Newport, although there is one kosher bed-and-breakfast. The Admiral Weaver Inn, which is under the supervision of Rabbi Eskovitz and the Providence Vaad Hakashrus, serves a kosher breakfast to those staying at the inn. Kosher packaged foods are available at local markets in Newport, such as Stop and Shop.

 {By Dovid Bernstein for Matzav.com Newscenter}