Rebecca Touro Lopez
In 1824, Rebecca Touro petitioned the Rhode Island state legislature on behalf of preserving Touro Synagogue in Newport, the oldest synagogue building in North America and one that symbolizes Jewish survival and the American belief in religious freedom. At the time of her petition, no Jews were living in Newport, but her brother, Abraham Touro, had left the state ten thousand dollars to restore and maintain the synagogue. The synagogue, designed by the eminent colonial architect Peter Harrison, was not only a beautiful building, but represented a history of religious toleration, both in the Rhode Island colony founded by Roger Williams and in the new nation. Today, the synagogue is an active house of worship and, as a National Historic Site and National Trust Historic Site, draws thirty thousand visitors a year from all over the country and around the world.
In the years from 1760 to 1776, when the synagogue was built and first active, Newport was at the pinnacle of colonial wealth. Jews had found refuge there from the Portuguese Inquisition and sought economic recovery and opportunity there. But by 1779, when Rebecca was born, Newport had been devastated in the American Revolution, hundreds of its buildings burned down (although its synagogue was spared), and its population, for the most part, dispersed. It would never recover its commercial preeminence, although after the Civil War it was reborn as an opulent summer resort.
As an infant and child, and as a dependent single woman, Rebecca moved repeatedly during her life, first because of the effects of the Revolution and then because of deaths in her family. Her family moved to New York in 1779, and shortly afterward to Kingston, Jamaica, where her father died in 1784, then to her uncle’s house in Boston, where her mother died in 1787. When her uncle died, she moved to her brother Abraham’s house in Boston, and when he died in 1822, she went to live in New York with the Lopez family.
The Touro name is Portuguese, related to the Spanish name Toro. In the years after 1492, this family, like many other Sephardi families, moved to Amsterdam, Curaçao, and Brazil. Isaac Touro, Rebecca’s father, had emigrated from Holland in about 1758 to be the first hazan (minister or reader) of Newport’s congregation. Its synagogue Yeshuat Israel (Salvation of Israel), dedicated in 1763, would come to be known as the Touro Synagogue. Isaac Touro and his wife, Reyna Hays Touro, had two sons, Abraham and Judah, in Newport before Rebecca was born. A fourth child, a son, was born in New York and probably died young.
Abraham Touro was a successful Boston merchant known for his bequests for the preservation of the synagogue and the reconstruction of the street on which the synagogue and cemetery are located. During his life he had also arranged for replacing the deteriorating fence around the cemetery with a brick wall. The 1677 deed required maintenance of the fence to prevent the burial ground from reverting to the original owner. Judah Touro, a New Orleans merchant, attained national prominence as a philanthropist. Among his many hundreds of thousands of dollars of gifts all over the United States were ten thousand dollars that made possible the completion of Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument and ten thousand dollars to the synagogue.
A successful petition to the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1685 had protected Jews from seizure of their property. In the colonial and early American eras, the right of petition was an important entitlement of disenfranchised individuals.
Living with the Lopez family in New York City after her brother’s death, and inspired by Moses Lopez, the last Jew to leave Newport, Rebecca petitioned the Rhode Island General Assembly. The legislature had created a trust fund with her brother’s bequest, but two years after his death, the money was sitting idle while the building was deteriorating. Stephen Gould, a Newport resident and a Quaker, was looking after the synagogue and cemetery, and she urged that he be paid out of the fund. She had earlier written on the same subject to the executor of her brother’s will. But in late 1824, the issue was still unresolved. Her petition noted that the interest from her brother’s “liberal donation was intended to be appropriated for the benefit of the two places in any way conducive to keep them always in a state of complete repair, to be transmitted and conveyed to a succeeding Congregation which he then contemplated might in progress of time settle again at Newport ... if my prayer is finally rejected and both places are to be abandoned and forsaken to save a just recompense to an agent indispensably necessary to have a constant eye on them, they inevitably must go to ruin, contrary to my brother’s laudable design.”
The assembly responded to Rebecca Touro’s petition on January 12, 1825. The two-year restoration of the synagogue was begun in 1827. Putting these dates in context, one may note that the last recorded auto-da-fé of the Inquisition in Spain was in 1826, in Valencia.
The preservation of the synagogue represents one of the first efforts in the United States to restore and maintain an unoccupied historic building. This preservation led the way in Newport’s extensive program of maintaining its architectural legacy. However, the Touro preservation was focused on preserving not just an impressive edifice but also the principle of religious freedom.
Even in 1822, the cemetery and unoccupied synagogue were opened to visitors, but after the restoration, visits took on additional meaning. Two visitors in the second half of the nineteenth century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Emma Lazarus, wrote poems after their visits. “The sacred shrine is holy yet,” wrote Emma Lazarus in 1867, “With its lone floors where reverent feet once trod. / Take off your shoes, as by the burning bush, / before the mystery of death and God.”
Late in life, when she was fifty, and he around sixty, Rebecca married Joshua Lopez, son of one prominent colonial Newport merchant, Aaron Lopez, and grandson of another, Jacob Rodrigues Rivera.
In her will, Rebecca Touro Lopez asked for Newport burial. In December 1833, her body arrived from New York by steamboat, the synagogue was opened for a service, and she was buried with other members of her Newport community.
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