The oldest standing synagogue building in the United States is the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. I was surprised to learn the building was used in Colonial times for only a few years. Then the War of Independence began, the British came into Newport, and soon after the Jews left the city. Some families came back when the war was over; however, Newport did not regain its stature, so the Jewish community never flourished again in the same way.
If you walk up the hill a few blocks (we did), you will find the old Jewish cemetery. Among others, buried here is Judah Touro, son of Isaac Touro. Because of his funding and efforts, the building was kept going.
The congregation was a Sephardi one, meaning its members’ ancestors were originally from Spain, and the prayers are in a Sephardi manner. There is a Torah scroll behind a glass case in the sanctuary. My son noticed it is an Ashkenazi Torah scroll, not a Sephardi one (how did he know? Sephardi Torah scrolls are stood upright while the Torah is read, whereas Ashkenazi ones lie flat). Our guide pointed out that the Torah scroll was already two hundred years old when it was donated by the Amsterdam Jewish Community to the Newport Jewish community. Perhaps this was one that was not needed, so it allowed to take the long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean?
Several people asked us: did the tour guide show us the trap door underneath the bimah? No, she did not. It seems that the synagogue was a hiding place in the underground railroad in the 19th century. There was a movie about the history of Jewish Newport in the building in front of the synagogue, but we did not get a chance to view it.
One interesting note: the synagogue is built at an angle. This was in order that the sanctuary face Mizrah (face to the east, where Jerusalem is – standard procedure for a synagogue).
Above is a view out a window of the second floor of the Touro Synagogue at sunset, between Minha and Maariv (afternoon and evening prayers). My husband and son attended services both in the morning and in the afternoon during our three day trip. My daughter and I came once to Minha-Maariv and sat with other women and girls in the balcony section. The rabbi was so pleased that so many young women were in attendance (he gave a short talk, and at one point he looked up at the girls as he discussed whether women are obligated in fixed-time mitzvot).
One of the best parts of the trip was when we learned that the rabbi gave hashgacha (kosher supervision) to a wonderful little vegan restaurant called Raw Power Juice Bar on Broadway. We went twice: we ordered bean rice burgers, a variety of smoothies and a few salads. We hope they stay in existence!
Pictured is one of a series of paintings inside the restaurant.