To Bigotry No Sanction – The Story of Newport’s Touro Synagogue

Having visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport RI several times, it was interesting to find Rabbi Morris Gutstein’s 1958 book “To Bigotry No Sanction”.  Gutstein was the rabbi at the synagogue for about five years, early in his career, in the 1930s.  He then moved on to Chicago.  Gutstein wrote a number of books; this is the second that I have read.  Some time ago, I read his biography of Aaron Lopez, a remarkable Newport business man and shipping magnate of the 18th century.  Born as a secret Jew in Portugal in 1731, Lopez moved to Newport in his early 20s, changed his first name from Duarte to Aaron, and became openly a Jew.  He was probably the wealthiest man in Newport, and a generous one, having been one of the founders of what became the Touro Synagogue, laying one of its cornerstones.  In the middle of a successful career, at age 51, he died when (goes to show you never know when it will be) he was watering his horse in a stream and he fell into the water and drowned.

But back to the synagogue and Rabbi Gutstein’s book.  First, he outlines the beginnings and growth of Newport’s Jewish community.  Newport itself was founded in the 1630s, and the first Jews came shortly after that, first from the Caribbean and then from Dutch Brazil after it had been defeated by the Portuguese and the Inquisition reinstated there.  Still in the 17th century, the community bought ground for a cemetery and formed a congregation which they called the Salvation of Israel, or Yeshuat Israel.  In the late 1750s, the Jews of Newport began planning to build a synagogue, in 1760 they engaged as their rabbi Isaac Touro (from Amsterdam or the Dutch colony of Curacao), and in 1762, the synagogue was completed.

Interestingly, the cost of the sanctuary was more than the Newport Jews were able or willing to provide, and the community engaged in a fund raising effort, obtaining a great deal of assistance from Congregation Shearith Israel in New York.  This became important because, after the American revolution, when the city of Newport and its Jewish community fell on hard times, there were not sufficient congregants to keep the synagogue operating, and responsibility for its upkeep was given in the very early 19th century to Shearith Israel.

Of course, Gutstein describes the design, construction and furnishing of the synagogue in detail, as well as the well known visit by President George Washington and his communication to the synagogue where he paraphrased the words of Moses Seixas of the Newport congregation, and wrote “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.”

Gutstein details the later history of the building and the Jewish community of Newport – issues regarding the physical upkeep of the property, the control of the congregation’s endowment, assistance in maintaining the property given by the Rhode Island state government, issues of when the building could be used for occasional services and other functions, debates over whether the Ashkenazic (eastern European) rites could be used instead of the Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) rites, and so forth.

In 1883, the building was reconsecrated, and in 1939, when the City of Newport celebrated its 300th birthday, the synagogue and the Jewish history of the city were given a prominent role. In 1947, the Touro Synagogue was named a National Historical Site by President Truman.

“To Bigotry No Sanction” is a short book (152 pages), and the style at times is a bit homey, but it tells a fascinating story in sufficient detail to make it all come alive.

One thought on “To Bigotry No Sanction – The Story of Newport’s Touro Synagogue

  1. I have both these books and have used them for many years. A couple of interesting sides: one is the story of Peter Harrision, the architect (America’s first), a stowaway from England as a lad, eloped with the boss’ daughter (a great love match), very successful merchant here in Newport who taught himself architecture. He designed the Brick Market and the Redwood Library (both magnificent successes), but the synagogue he considered his masterpiece. He did it for free, for love of his Jewish neighbors. The second item is that Moses Seixas was the ancestor of Emma Lazarus, quite a considerable poet and activist for immigrant rights. She “summered” here as a girl. Was the author of the “Give me your tired, your poor . . .” poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. About 60 or 70 years ago Rabbi Guttman found the manuscript of one of her unpublished poems, not quite juvenilia but very youthful, tucked into some papers at Touro. It’s about the synagogue. I could get it for you if you’re interested.

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