Touro Synagogue, the first Jewish synagogue in America, stands as a testament to the religious freedom of the colony that became the state of Rhode Island. The founder of the colony, Roger Williams, who was banned from Puritan Massachusetts, helped shape a new government that had no power over spiritual matters.

Touro Synagogue National Historic Site
©Touro Synagogue Foundation/John Hopf
Touro Synagogue National Historic Site is a testament to religious freedom.

The news of this new colony spread, and by about 1658, Rhode Island's first Jewish community was founded by a group of Sephardic Jews who came here from Spain and Portugal. At first, they held services in private homes and rented buildings. In 1677, they bought a cemetery plot, but it wasn't until the next century that they had finally raised enough money to build a permanent synagogue.

Peter Harrison, who designed King's Chapel in Boston and Christ Church in Cambridge, volunteered to design the synagogue. Ground was broken in 1759, and the church was finally finished about three years later. The Rev. Isaac Touro, spiritual leader of the Newport Jewish community, dedicated the synagogue in 1762.

Often called Harrison's masterpiece, the synagogue has the classic lines of Georgian architecture. Inside, the building is ornate and airy. Twelve Ionic columns, representing the 12 tribes of ancient Israel, support a gallery. Above these, 12 Corinthian columns rise to the domed ceiling, from which hang five massive brass candelabra. Throughout the historic site, established in 1946, are many sacred religious objects, including the Holy Ark, which contains a 500-year-old scroll.

Touro Synagogue National Historic Site Information

Address: 85 Touro St., Newport, RI
Telephone: 401/847-4794
Hours of Operation: This is an active place of worship; call before visiting
Admission: Free­

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To learn more about national monuments, memorials, and historic sites, and other travel destinations in North America, visit:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based author who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.