Growing up Jewish in Newport, Rhode Island

As I mentioned last week, we have well-located family members that we went to visit.  This may have been an understatement. I come from one of the USA’s most famous summer resorts, Newport, Rhode Island. I love to act as a travel advisor for friends from New Jersey who are heading to what I still refer to as “home,” even after 27 years in the tri-state area.  There’s so much to do and see at any time of the year (although I recommend September, if you can – less crowds, glorious weather.) 

I am sure that everyone who visits Newport will find something to love – the simply breathtaking Ocean Drive, our beautiful beaches, the over the top Gilded Era mansions – but I know Jewish visitors will find Touro Synagogue to be a very special place.  It is the oldest synagogue in the United States; it is a beautiful piece of colonial architecture.  To me, Touro is more than an inspiring place to visit, it is my shul.  I grew up there, part of the second congregation to use Touro as a place of worship.  My grandfather, father, and brother all became a bar mitzvah standing on its central bima.  Touro is an Orthodox congregation, so I didn’t have that privilege, although I did have a wonderful candlelit wedding there 27 years ago next week!

Growing up at Touro had a profound impact on my Jewish identity.  I learned very early that Jews have been chased from countries that they had considered home for hundreds of years.  The founders of the Jewish community in Newport were descendants of Jews who had been chased from Europe to Brazil to the American colonies. So I knew that being Jewish meant a history of uncertainty, of being the outsider.  As one of two Jewish children at my elementary school, (the other one was my sister!) I knew what it felt like to be different. In Rhode Island, a colony based on religious tolerance, the Jewish refugees found a haven. The annual reading of George Washington’s letter confirmed for me that the United States was a different story for Jews.  In Washington’s historic letter, sent after his visit to the congregation at Newport, he assured them that in this new country, there would be “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  Even as a child, I understood that I was very lucky to live in a country that allowed the free practice of religion.

This, I believe, is the ying and the yang of what we live with as American Jews, whether you were raised here in one of the many MetroWest synagogues or in the small colonial gem in Newport: we are always aware that we are part of an extremely small religious minority that has faced terrible persecution in the past and yet are also part of a nation that, while not perfect, affords us greater legal protection than any other nation other than our own homeland.  As Jews we have a heritage of living with contradiction and with arguments between the sages that are still discussed today and our Jewish American identity is just one more. 

Come to Newport; enjoy the beauty of a great American resort and your heritage as a Jew!

Leslie

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