Tuesday, March 31, 2009

USA: Thoughts About Touro Synagogue as Public Tours are Cancelled

Touro Synagogue Cancels Public Tours
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) On March 5th journalist Richard Salit reported in the
Providence Journal that the Touro Synagogue Foundation had laid off the last of is staff, including Executive Director Steve Sitrin, and Malka Benjamin, coordinator of public programs. You can read the article here:

Update: Touro Synagogue tours suspended; museum on track

The immediate result is that tours of Touro Synagogue, the most historic and probably best known synagogue building in the United States have been canceled. Closing the synagogue is a dramatic step - since it is an important link in Newport's tourism network, and also the flagship Jewish tourist site in the country. Since almost everything about Touro has been elevated into the realm of national symbol, the symbolism of this move is very important.

Obviously the current financial situation which has hit all not-for-profits hard is at least partly to blame for the demise of the Foundation. Presumably the Foundation counted on grants and gifts to help cover salaries. There are probably other factors in play, too. The Foundation has been erecting an expensive - but to me somewhat problematic - visitor and interpretive center on a lot adjacent to the synagogue. My guess is that as happens with so many small organizations, the strain of expansion - even though funded primarily by a donor (former Ambassador John Loeb, a descendant of Newport Jews for whom the new Center is to be named) - was too great, especially when the new facility is forcing the organization to reinvent itself. Matters are, of course, complicated by the fact that the synagogue is owned by the historic (Sephardi) Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, and leased for a nominal fee to the active Orthodox Congregation Jeshuat Israel of Newport (which though its members are Ashkenazi, by agreement follows Sephardi ritual). Many other players have gotten involved over the years, most noticeably the U.S. Park Service - playing a role I have never quite understood. The Foundation exists beside the congregation, entrusted to protect and preserve the historic building, and to properly present it to the public.

According to the
Providence Journal article, the 3,100 square foot Loeb Center for Religious Freedom is still scheduled to open in August. At that time, according to the article, tours will begin again (though I had previously been told when I visited Newport last summer and met briefly with recently fired Executive Director Sitrin that the presentation of the Center would, in fact, replace formal synagogue tours.)

I was impressed with Foundation's program that brought college students to Newport for the summer to serve as guides - I was even looking forward to encouraging some of my own students to apply. But was troubled but what I perceived to be a lack of legitimate historical and social inquiry in what I learned of the program of the new center. Like much of the work on Touro's history over the past century, the presentation as presently made known seems to lean more to the ideological and hagiographic view of Newport. We will have to wait and see what the new center's content is. My requests on behalf of ISJM and this blog for more information last fall went unanswered. I am concerned that even when open there may not be sufficient funds available, for now money will be needed for maintain and staff both synagogue and interpretation center.

Will the exhibition be static, or will there be an historian and/or curator at work? Will the Center encourage new research and interpretation (about Rhode Island and New England Jewish history, synagogue architecture, historic preservation, etc.) or will it maintain what the fairly static view of Touro and Newport's Jews which has been fine-tuned since Touro became a National shrine more than a half century ago? In the past there seems to have been a serious disconnect between history taught at Touro and the more wide-ranging work of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society. It would a boon to both organizations if George Goodwin or some historian of similar qualification were brought in to link the two.

The website of Loeb's organization focuses almost entirely on the earliest history of Newport's Jewish community - and its religious freedom guaranteed by President George Washington in his famous letter to the congregation which stated that the new nation would give "bigotry no sanction." Still, that episode is just one small part of Touro's history, since the original Sephardi community dissolved not long after Washington's pronouncement.

Touro as the Foundation of Jewish Heritage Preservation

It is because Touro's greatest legacy may be its pioneering efforts at historic preservation (the very reason it is called the Touro Synagogue is because of an early endowment made to protect and preserve the empty and unused synagogue by Abraham Touro that the building survives today. More than a half-century before the Anti-Demolition League was formed to save Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, and more than 150 years before the World Monuments Fund started its Jewish Heritage Program, a few early American Jews had the foresight to plan the preservation of Touro.

As early as 1822 the
Rhode Island American and General Advertiser wrote: We are told that the Jewish Synagogue at Newport is still standing, and with little expense might be long preserved, as a “handsome specimen of ancient architecture." A few months after this notice appeared, Abraham Touro made a bequest of $10,000 to the legislature of the state for “supporting the Jewish Synagogue in the State.” The following year, in the June 1823 session of the General Assembly there is mention of “An Act to Secure and Appropriate the Touro Jewish Synagogue Fund.” Endowing the building, even when it was not in use, protected it. It was in today’s terminology “mothballed,” until it would come into regular use again when Eastern European immigrants reconstituted the Newport Jewish community.

Thus began a nearly two century tradition of conserving the historic synagogue, which remains today the oldest standing synagogue buildings in North America. Most recently, the Touro Synagogue Foundation funded and oversaw an extensive restoration of the building that reversed some earlier work, and notably saw the complete restoration by Newman's, Ltd. of Newport of the synagogues many metal light fixtures and other valuable fittings (for a full and exemplary preservation report click here). The new Visitors’ Center will open in 2009, and I hope it tells this story, too. The interest shown by Abraham Touro established a precedent among American Jewish congregations of care and reverence for their synagogue buildings. Still, the vicissitudes of man and nature have caused most of the oldest synagogue buildings in American to be destroyed or demolished (and donors often prefer to build new synagogues than maintain older ones) so Touro remains among American Jewry's most precious possessions.

For further readings on the architectural and preservation history of Touro see:

Allen, T.J., 1948. "Touro Synagogue as a National Site," in Touro Synagogue of Congregation Jeshuat Israel. Friends of Touro Synagogue, Newport, R.I.

Goodwin, George M., 2000. “The Politics of Preservation: How Touro Synagogue Became a National Historic Site,” Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, 13:2 (Nov 2000), 177-207.

Schwartz, Esther I., 1958. “Touro Synagogue Restored, 1827-29,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, XVII (summer 1958), 23-26.

Schwartz, Esther I., 1959. “Touro Synagogue Restored,” Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, III (Oct 1959), 106-131.

More general histories include are varying reliability include:

Gutstein, Morris A. et al, 1948. Touro Synagogue of Congregation Jesuat Israel, Newport, Rhode Island, Society of Friends of Touro Synagogue National Historic Shrine, Newport.

Gutstein, Morris, A., 1958. To Bigotry No Sanction: A Jewish Shrine in America 1658-1958. New York: Bloch Publishing Company.

Lewis, Rabbi Dr. Theodore, 1975. "History of Touro Synagogue." Newport History: Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society 48, Part 3, No. 159 (Summer 1975):281-320.

Pool, David de Sola, 1948. “Some Notes on the Touro Synagogue,” Touro Synagogue of Congregation Jesuat Israel, Newport, Rhode Island, Society of Friends of Touro Synagogue National Historic Shrine, Newport, 7-13.

Schless, Nancy Halverson, 1973. “Peter Harrison, The Touro Synagogue, and the Wren City Church,” in Winterthur Portfolio 8 (1973), 187-200.

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