Visit to Newport Synagogue – in a multicultural cosmopolitan port.

“The Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”

Last week I visited Touro Synagogue with Desi in Newport, the little east coast US port where she used to work. The Synagogue is the oldest standing in the US, and it is particularly famous because of the role it played in ensuring that multiculturalism became part of US life, at the constitutional level, and for the role it played in standing up against religious bigotry. I am not really a follower of established religion any more, but I do study the history of religion, religious architecture and sacred ideas, and in particular, I am an opponent of religious bigotry. As Voltaire once said “the only thing not to tolerate is intolerance”.

Touro Synagogue Newport. Dave with his Kippah jewish skull cap at the entrance.

This is something I have been interested in ever since growing up in Glasgow Scotland, where anti-religious bigotry was, and still is to some extent, an unpleasant and sometimes violent reality.

Newport is a special place because it was a meeting place for many cultures in the 18th and 19th centuries. People fleeing religious persecution in Britain and the rest of Europe mixed with fishermen and merchants on the US east coast. Newport became a place of diversity and it remains this way today. Others came from Boston, where the Puritans were intolerant of ‘non-conforming’ Christians of other denominations. Some walked to Newport, and joined the growing community. The jews who established the synagogue came from Portugal where they were being forced to flee or convert, and Amsterdam where a growing Jewish community had established itself in the ports where diversity was tolerated.

When the USA was first forming at the end of the 19th century, Rhode Island state where Newport is found was one of the last of the original 13 to join up, and this may be because they were demanding that religious liberty was first enshrined in the new constitution. The First Amendment was proposed in 1789 and adopted in 1791. This ensured the freedom of religious groups to worship, and their protection from oppressive or discriminatory laws. It also established the separation of religion and state, and ensured that people of all faiths could work together and yet continue worshiping in their own particular ways. This is really the core principle of multiculturalism.

We had a very interesting tour of the attached museum of religious liberty, and the ancient synagogue itself .

There is one special document, however, that records these events in more detail. After Rhode Island signed up to the United States, George Washington paid a visit to Touro Synagogue, and in reply to a letter addressed to him by the Hebrew congregation, he wrote a letter that still exists today. This assured them that “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.”

Touro Synagogue with Desi

The letter in full:

http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=21

Loeb visitor centre:

http://www.loeb-tourovisitorscenter.org/

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