In June, 2009, I first interviewed for my current position at Shearith Israel. Little did I know that it would mark the beginning of a journey that would lead not only to a rabbinic position, but also to a PhD, many exciting travels, and the world of Spanish Jewry.
It was after that interview that I went on vacation with my pal Ron Goldofsky to Cape Cod. As it is along the route from NY, we decided to spend a night in Newport, RI and visit the famed Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue building in America, built in 1763. While Shearith Israel dates back to the 17th century and built its first building in 1730 (The Mill St. Synagogue, no longer in existence), it was stepping into this magical, colonial synagogue that made me realize how special this ancient Jewish diaspora was and how exciting it could be to be a part of it.
Though Touro no longer follows the Portuguese rite (as all the colonial era congregations once did), Shearith Israel actually owns it. After the American Revolution, Newport began to decline, no longer as important a port as it once had been. As most Jews at the time were involved in trade, they began their exodus from the area. By the early 19th century, everyone had left. The synagogue closed its doors and its former residents handed the key to Shearith Israel. However, by the end of the 19th century, Ashkenazic Jews began to move in, and they requested the use of the beautiful synagogue building. From that time on, they have rented the space, praying the Ashkenazi ‘sphard’ rite as a kind of compromise to the past.
Despite the centuries, Touro has been maintained and restored to perfection. Standing among its pews transports you to a time of revolutionary fervor, white wigs, and unbridled pride in Jewish identity in a strange new land. The building stands prominently in public view, an expression of the comfort that former Conversos now felt in displaying their Judaism for all to see. The name of their congregation was Jeshuat Israel, Salvation of Israel. Although Jewish life in Newport ended, this group of pioneers helped start Jewish life in America, and played an important role in inspiring me toward my start in their heritage.