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Oldest active US synagogue opens R.I. visitor center

Archive for August, 2009

Oldest active US synagogue opens R.I. visitor center

August 17th, 2009 by billfarrell

Mon, 17 Aug 2009 08:59:11

August 16, 2009
NEWPORT, R.I. — The Touro Synagogue was barely 25 years old when George Washington offered a vision of religious tolerance in a letter he sent its congregants.

The new American government, the president wrote in the most famous passage of the 1790 letter, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Plan a visit
Location: 85 Touro St.

Parking: The synagogue is a 10-minute walk from Newport Gateway Center.Information: or call 401-847-4794.
A copy of the letter is the highlight of a new $12 million visitors center that opened last Sunday next to the Touro Synagogue, the oldest existing Jewish house of worship in the United States.

The visitors center details the history of the synagogue, which was dedicated in 1763, but has a broader focus on colonial Jewish history and culture and the principles that guided the nation’s founding, center curator David Kleiman said.

“There’s a placement in history of the role that this building has played and, more importantly, the role as a living symbol of the concept of religious freedom, separation of church and state,” Kleiman said. “The building and its history are the embodiment of that concept in America.”

Touro Synagogue, designated a National Historic Site in 1946, maintains an active Orthodox Jewish congregation and still offers tours. But the goal of the visitors center, 12 years in the making, is to offer even more information in an interactive setting, said Keith Stokes, chairman of the board at the Touro Synagogue Foundation.

“We’ve got this great story and history to share, but we needed to create a platform where everyone felt able to attend and learn,” Stokes said.

Visitors to the center, which is separated from the synagogue by a grassy park, can scroll through hundreds of images and biographies of early American Jews. Panels detail the origin of the synagogue, its architect and its founding members. Costumed actors play out scenes of colonial life in eight video vignettes projected onto glass.

The center’s timeline starts before Rhode Island even had a Jewish community.

The first Jewish community in America is generally traced to 1654, when Jews from Recife, Brazil, arrived in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam — today New York City.

In 1658, 15 families of Sephardic Jews traveled to Newport, a bustling waterfront hub in Rhode Island, a colony founded by Roger Williams on the principle of religious freedom. Isaac Touro, a Dutch Jew, arrived 100 years later from Amsterdam and became the congregation’s first spiritual leader.

The congregation bought land, and the synagogue was designed by architect Peter Harrison, who also was responsible for King’s Chapel in Boston.

The synagogue was dedicated Dec. 2, 1763, during Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. It served as a hospital for British soldiers during the Revolutionary War and later as a meeting place for the state Legislature and Supreme Court.

In August 1790, Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson paid a goodwill visit to Rhode Island, after it became the last of the 13 original colonies to ratify the Constitution.

Washington exchanged letters with the synagogue’s warden, Moses Seixas, who expressed gratitude that the American government “gives to bigotry no sanction,” words Washington would echo in his letter to Newport’s Jewish community in 1790, a year before the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

The letter is “one of the great documents in American history,” said John Loeb, a philanthropist who largely funded the center and was ambassador to Denmark in the administration of former President Ronald Reagan. But the center had to settle for a copy of it since the original is under the stewardship of the Jewish advocacy organization B’nai Brith in Washington, D.C., and is owned by a private family that has been reluctant to lend it, Kleiman said.

Stokes, who also is executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, said the visitors center would enhance the city’s colonial heritage, which jostles for attention alongside images of the city’s Gilded Age mansions and the contemporary yachting culture.

“At the end of the day,” Stokes said, “historic structures and sites and places — historic occurrences — are important, but if you don’t tell it from the perspective of the people the visitor can’t connect with it.”

Let the Spring Seasons Inn which is just a half a block from Touro Synagogue provide you with lovely accomodations while visiting Touro and all that Nepwort has to offer.
Information: or call 401-847-4794.

Newport Museum of Illustration Provides Rich Experience

August 15th, 2009 by billfarrell

Sat, 15 Aug 2009 21:25:46By David Boyce

On a recent day trip to Newport, some friends and I spent a few hours at the National Museum of American Illustration (NMAI), housed in Vernon Court on Belleville Avenue.

This makes for a beautiful, Gilded Age ambiance for a spectacular collection of original works by America’s illustration masters, called imagists, including works by N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew and grandfather of Jamie), Howard Pyle, J.C. Leyendecker, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, Violet Oakley, Charles Dana Gibson, J.M. Flagg, Jesse Wilcox Smith, and Howard Chandler Christy, among several others.

As the guidebook describes it, “Vernon Court is a Beaux-Arts adaptation of an 18th century French building, Cháteau Harouè (1721), outside Nancy, by architect Germain Boffrand. French-style architecture was considered the consummate expression of proper architectural manners and this New World manifestation is more perfect than its historic antecedents.” The setting is as beautiful as the artworks.

Founded in 1998 by Judy and Laurence Cutler, and opened to the public on July 4, 2000, this is the first national museum dedicated to the art of illustration. Because the world of fine arts looked down on commercial enterprises, illustration did not find significant support or collectors until the late 20th century.

Early in the 1960s, Judy was one of the first private collectors to recognize illustration for its intrinsic aesthetic value, and she collected with a passion. The NMAI’s collection has grown since then, using the Cutler’s American Imagist Collection as its base.

Beginning the museum’s tour, we watch a video as an introduction to the collection and Vernon Court, featuring interviews and commentary by the Cutlers and such collectors as actress Whoopi Goldberg, an avid collector herself. An informed docent then guides our group through the various first-floor rooms of Vernon Court, filling in details about the artworks as well as the architecture and décor. Each room is laden with exquisite objects and it takes a while to soak it all in, but it makes for a visual feast that is well worth the price of admission ($18 for adults).

At the beginning of May of this year, I reviewed the new Abrams publication “J.C. Leyendecker” by the Cutlers, a beautiful volume and the second (and far superior) major study of the German immigrant who became Norman Rockwell’s hero and mentor, and the most prolific cover artist for the Saturday Evening Post with 322 covers. Seeing so many of Leyendecker’s original paintings at the NMAI was quite thrilling, as he was a painter in the true meaning of the word.

David B. Boyce is senior arts correspondent for The Standard-Times. ARTicles appears biweekly.

86 Spring Street, Newport, RI 02840  |  401-849-0004  |  887-294-0004  |