In 1658, approximately 15 Sephardic Jewish families emigrated from the Dutch West Indies (Curacao and Barbados) and settled in Newport, R.I. A congregation was soon organized and named “Yeshuat Israel,” and land for a Jewish cemetery was purchased several years later.
But for nearly a century, the community remained too small to afford a synagogue and religious services were conducted in private homes. The Jewish community was augmented by the arrival of more families from the Dutch West Indies in 1694 and, especially, by the arrival of “hundreds of wealthy Israelites” – who, it must be assumed, were Conversos – from Portugal between the years 1740 and 1760. (The emigration from Portugal gained momentum after 1755 when Lisbon was leveled by an earthquake.)
The city of Newport thrived in the 18th century, largely because of its position as the American colonies’ busiest seaport, and Jewish merchants and entrepreneurs contributed greatly to its prosperity. Among the most prominent of these was Jacob Rodriques-Rivera, an immigrant from Lisbon, who introduced into America the manufacture of sperm oil and candles, and Aaron Lopez, also from Lisbon, who owned a fleet of ship engaged in West Indian and European trade, and also in whale hunting. Newport supported as many as 17 factories dedicated to the manufacture of sperm oil and candles, assuring the town of a virtual monopoly in these trades, in addition to many sugar refineries, distilleries and furniture factories. Aaron Lopez became known as “the great merchant prince of New England.”
As the Jewish community of Newport grew prosperous, there was a concomitant growth of Jewish institutions. A synagogue was built in 1759, dedicated four years later, and a cantor, Isaac Touro, arrived in 1760 from Amsterdam (by way of Jamaica) and became the first spiritual leader of the congregation. Isaac Touro became a close friend of Ezra Stiles, who was soon to become president of Yale University (and at whose initiative the study of Hebrew was made mandatory for all first-year undergraduate students at Yale.) The synagogue, which became known as the Touro Synagogue, was destined to survive to this day and is reckoned to be the oldest edifice of its kind in the United States.
The Jewish residents participated in the general life of the city and were viewed most favorably by their non-Jewish neighbors. Yitzchok Levine, in his history of the Jewish settlement of Newport, cites this frank memoir composed by a gentile citizen, George Champlin Mason:
“The Jews who settled in Newport were not only noted for their knowledge of mercantile and commercial affairs, but also for their industry, enterpris, and probity. They kept to their callings, took but little part in politics…and they seem to have avoided both the marine and military service. They were neither good sailors nor good soldiers, nor do they appear to have been very fond of books….” And Mason was so impressed by the religious devotion of the local Jews that he pointedly remarked on “the strict adherence to a Torah way of life by the wealthy merchants of Newport.”
The period of great prosperity for Newport and its Jewish inhabitants came to an abrupt end with the onset of the American Revolution. In 1776, immediately after Rhode Island declared its independence (two months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence), the port was blockaded by the British fleet, the town was occupied by Hessian troops, commerce virtually ceased and most of the population – including 1,200 Jews – fled. By the end of the war Newport was devastated, and the town never regained its commercial prominence. Some Jews did return to Newport after the war, however, and services were resumed in the Touro Synagogue.
On Aug. 17, 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, for the express purpose of obtaining Rhode Island’s support for the Bill of Rights, which had not yet been ratified. He was accompanied by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, by New York Gov. George Clinton and Supreme Court Justice John Blair. The warden of the Touro Synagogue, Moses Seixas, was part of a delegation that came to greet the president on his arrival; he composed a letter of welcome, which he read aloud. A few days later, the president responded in writing, addressing his letter to “The Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.”
Washington’s letter to the Jewish community of Newport rightly has been celebrated, as much for the eloquence of its language as for its noble message concerning the new government’s dedication to the ideals of “liberty of conscience” and “inherent natural rights,” which were to be guaranteed to all the nation’s citizens. Indeed, those ideals were to form the basis for the First Amendment within the Bill of Rights, the ratification of which was the very purpose of the president’s visit to Newport.
The authorship of Washington’s letter is open to question: Did Washington himself write the letter, in his own words, or was he assisted by Jefferson or some other member of his entourage? The historical record is not entirely clear on this matter. However, what is clear is that one phrase within Washington’s letter – arguably its most memorable phrase – was lifted verbatim from the letter of welcome that Moses Seixas had read aloud to the president, and that is: “…the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
The letter as a whole is written in a style and cadence reminiscent of the King James translation of the Hebrew Bible, and its penultimate sentence constitutes a “blessing” directed to the Hebrew Congregation, quoting directly from Micah 4:4 and I Kings 4:25: “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.”
The writer is a retired Washington area neurologist and an occasional lecturer in Jewish history.