The oldest shul in the United States will read President George Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport’ today in celebration of religious freedom.
Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island will read the letter at 1 p.m., as it does annually, not only to celebrate religious freedom, but also in remembrance of Washington’s visit and letter to the Jews of Newport.
Washington visited the synagogue, which was dedicated in 1763, in 1790 and subsequently sent them a letter, assuring that their religious liberties would be protected in the new nation and that the U.S. government would not give sanction to bigotry.
“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,” the letter reads.
Washington then unequivocally acknowledged the rights and place of Jews in American society.
“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,” he added.
The letter is marked not only for its explicit phrasing, but also for Washington’s praise of religious liberty as “the exercise of inherent natural rights” rather than just passive “toleration.”
Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed and Salve Regina University President Jane Gerety will be in attendance at the 71st annual reading of the letter, according to The Associated Press.