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Oldest U.S. synagogue opens portal to a wider history

The Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., has a new visitors center that focuses on colonial Jewish history and culture.

August 02, 2009|Associated Press

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 to 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."

A copy of the letter is the highlight of a new $12-million visitors center opening today next to the Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship in the United States.

The visitors center details the history of the synagogue, which was dedicated in 1763, and 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 offers tours. But the goal of the visitors center, 12 years in the making, is to offer more information in an interactive setting, said Keith Stokes, chairman of the board of the Touro Synagogue Foundation.

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