Judah Touro, a Sephadic Jew and philanthropist, is most known as the founder of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. He was born on June 16, 1775 and raised by his uncle in Boston. In 1801, Judah sought his fortune in New Orleans, where he prospered as a merchant. He served as a volunteer in the American Army at the Battle of New Orleans (1815), where he was severely wounded. Judah Touro’s real claim to fame was the generosity of the bequests made in his will. He donated a total of $143,000 to congregations, schools, and other Jewish institutions in seventeen cities throughout America, including $10,000 to the Congregation in Newport, henceforth known as the Touro Synagogue. Gifts to non-Jewish institutions in New Orleans, Boston and Newport totaled an additional $153,000. Another bequest, from his brother, Abraham, was used to erect Touro Synagogue’s front gate in 1843.
Washington and Truman
President George Washington visited Newport on August 17, 1790 when he was presented with a letter from Moses Seixas, President of the Congregation, extolling the new government, “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” In his reply, Washington repeated this moving phrase, which has been credited to him ever since.
Another President – Truman – wrote to the Congregation in 1947: “The setting apart of this historic shrine as a national monument is symbolic of our tradition of freedom, which has inspired men and women of every creed, race and ancestry to contribute their highest gifts to the development of our national culture.”
On August 31, 1947, the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior unveiled a bronze tablet designating the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island as a National Historic Shrine. This handsome colonial building is the oldest standing synagogue in the United States. It was designed by Peter Harrison, who combined his Georgian Colonial style with the traditional synagogue architecture of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. The Reverend Ezra Styles described the building as “the most perfect of the Temple kind perhaps in America,” when he attended its dedication in 1763.