Newport, RI – The oldest existing synagogue in North America, the Touro Synagogue holds more than two centuries of history within its brick walls. This architectural jewel was designed by Peter Harrison, America’s most famous 18th century architect and is considered to be his finest effort. Dedicated in December 1763, the Georgian influenced building is situated on an angle within the property allowing worshippers standing in prayer before the Holy Ark to face east toward Jerusalem.
But age has crept up on the building, dedicated in 1763. The walls are deteriorating with several types of mold, white paint chips litter the ground, a brass chandelier is slowly corroding and a poor ventilation system can make the sanctuary uncomfortable.
So now a massive restoration is underway, the first in decades, as part of a $10 million campaign that also includes money to build visitor facilities. The synagogue has been temporarily closed and sheathed in a white covering; the restoration is expected to conclude in December.
“Two hundred and fifty years is great for the building to have lasted,” said Michael Balaban, a former Hebrew school teacher and leader of the Touro Synagogue Foundation. “But if we don’t start to act now, we certainly won’t get another 250 years out of the building, let alone another 50.”
George Washington visited in 1781 and later delivered a written proclamation guaranteeing that bigotry would not be tolerated in the new nation. Two centuries later, President John F. Kennedy attended services there, and called Touro “not only the oldest Synagogue in America, but also one of the oldest symbols of liberty.” President Dwight Eisenhower also attended services at Touro, as did poet Robert Frost.
“When people come to our services, I think they’re inspired to know that 250 years ago … people were praying and had the privilege of praying as free citizens in a world that really didn’t have much religious tolerance,” said Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz, who leads the Orthodox congregation, Jeshuat Israel, that worships at Touro.
Meanwhile, workers will re-coat the exterior brick walls after using a chemical stripper to remove the existing 22 layers of paint. Modern wiring and new ventilation and sprinkler systems will be installed. The interior cloth wall covering will be removed to allow workers to get to mold underneath.
Construction of a two-building visitors center will begin after the conservation work ends. It will include exhibits on colonial Jewish history, the birth of religious freedom in America and a portrait gallery focused on distinguished Colonial-era Jews, among other features, Balaban said. “These artifacts tell a story about history,” said Balaban, noting that all of Touro’s interior finishing, from candlesticks to lanterns, date back centuries. “They’re not just an old lamp that needs to be polished or an old Torah.” The Touro also has a roughly 500-year-old Torah scroll, a gift from a synagogue in Europe.
Organizers have raised roughly $8.5 million of the $10 million they are seeking so far. Contributors have included a neighbor who came forward with a check, Balaban said, and a young girl who was eager to help. “I got a child who called the office not too long ago,” Balaban recalled. “She’s having a bat mitzvah and wants donations coming to this.”
In a seaport community famous for its music festivals, sailing and sprawling mansions, the Touro Synagogue has remained popular. “People from all over the world are aware of the history of Touro Synagogue, and come (specifically) to see it,” said Scott Loehr, executive director of the Newport Historical Society. Said Balaban, “If you know about a synagogue other than the one you belong to, you’re going to know about Touro.”