February 20, 2019

A light unto the Nation (inside the historic Touro Synagogue)

The Maccabees’ legendary oil may have burned for eight days and nights, but at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., the low-wattage bulb in the ner tamid has lasted more than a century, ever since the building was first electrified in the 1880s.

Built nearly 250 years ago, Touro — the oldest synagogue in the United States and the only one remaining from pre-Revolutionary times — is famous for its longevity, architectural elegance and status as a symbol of American civil liberty.

Any mention of the synagogue (for example, this one) must include a reference to the 1790 letter from George Washington assuring Touro’s congregants and all “Children of the Stock of Abraham” that “happily the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Yet for most people, Touro is a tour stop, a footnote in American Jewish history, or at best, a chapter heading. Even Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz, who had always included Touro (and Washington’s letter) in the history classes he taught, “presumed it was just a museum,” he said, “not a functioning synagogue.”

That is, until he heard they were hiring.

“I thought, ‘What a great opportunity to relive Jewish history,'” said the rabbi, who has led the congregation for the last 12 years.

Congregation Jeshuat Israel, whose forebears built the shul, claims a membership roll of about 130 families. Services are conducted in the Orthodox Sephardic style — men pray from benches arranged 360 degrees around the reading platform while the women’s gallery is located atop the 12 iconic columns representing Israel’s 12 tribes — but the synagogue does not affiliate with any major movement.

“There’s no way to classify us because we change from day to day,” Eskovitz said. “One day, everybody’s wearing black hats, the next, everyone is wearing little kippot srugot [knitted kippot], and the next day Chasidim are sitting next to liberal Jews.”

The synagogue receives about 30,000 visitors a year for its weekday tours, but on the first Shabbat morning of the summer season, about 30 have come to daven. The assembly is a mix of local families, officers from the Newport Naval Station, and observant visitors including a couple staying at the nearby kosher bed-and-breakfast Eskovitz helped establish.

Even on this relatively quiet Shabbat morning, there is no way not to be transported back in history. Set back from Touro Street on one of Newport’s highest points, the classical Georgian-style building is angled to face east toward Jerusalem. In 1759, the Rev. Isaac Touro, a chazzan born in Holland, commissioned Peter Harrison, considered America’s first professional architect, who, according to records never submitted a bill, calling the effort “a labor of love” (for everything else, presumably, Touro needed a building fund).

The early days were some of the glory days for Touro, Eskovitz explains later, as “incredible people” — not just President Washington — passed through Touro on their way to impacting the rest of the country. The prominent Colonial-era minister Ezra Stiles studied Hebrew with the rabbis here, and later, as president of Yale College, made learning the language a requirement for all students. During his tenure, Yale’s valedictory speeches were delivered in Hebrew and the Hebrew inscription he added to the school’s seal (“Urim” and “Tumim”) remains to this day.

In the 20th century, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy visited, sitting in the pew of honor where Washington once sat, and Clinton almost did (at the last moment, the Secret Service would not allow him to enter a building with only one exit). In his time here, Eskovitz has played host to numerous “Jewish dignitaries,” from Steven Spielberg to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a frequent guest. “To this day, there is still a rubbing of shoulders between Touro and people with great influence,” he says.

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Jewish community in Newport — the second Jewish community in North America, arriving (historians believe) from Curaçao, four years after another boatload of Jewish families had docked at New Amsterdam in 1654. It was the Jews of Rhode Island, however, who immediately flourished in the freedom of the New World, having chosen Roger Williams’ colony because it was founded as a haven of religious tolerance more than a century before the American Revolution.

As the only Jewish site designated a National Historic Shrine by the National Park Service, Touro attracts plenty of people who see it as a place where “their prayers can be answered,” said Eskovitz, who adds that many have contacted him after a visit to thank him for a wish that came true. “I’m very happy for them, though this may have more to do with the power of positive thinking.”

But the rabbi is most touched by the random visitors who walk into the synagogue — the only religious site named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as “the most beautiful house of worship in America” — and rediscover their own connection to Judaism. He says that numerous Jewish adults with no religious education or background have visited and then requested a bar mitzvah ceremony.

“And we oblige everyone,” he said. “It’s part of our responsibility as an international synagogue. We want to get attention — we want to maintain our past, but also chart our future as well.”

From his office window, he watches as people arrive after hours and, unable to get in to see the building, nonetheless kiss the mezuzah he commissioned for the property’s large stone gateway. He is encouraged that a growing number of Jewish people are building or buying summer homes near the synagogue, and he is also raising money to build a new mikvah to replace the one that functioned here until 50 years ago.

The sanctuary, meanwhile, reopened in 2006 after a complete restoration. On the newly polished candelabra and candlesticks, all original, one can now read the names of those who donated them as far back as the late 1700s. In a glass display next to the Ark stands a 500-year-old Torah scroll brought over from Europe by some of the early members. And also among the “artifacts” uncovered by the crew was the original light bulb from the ner tamid, which, when replaced in its socket, glowed once again — a fitting symbol in a building that has always been a symbol.

“We were once the leaders in [American] Jewish history,” Rabbi Eskovitz said. “Why can’t we do it again?”

Victor Wishna lives and writes in New York City. He can be reached at LetterFromNY@juno.com.