- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

NEWPORT, R.I. — The oldest existing Jewish house of worship in North America, the Touro Synagogue holds more than two centuries of history within its brick walls. George Washington visited here, and throngs of tourists still include it on their itineraries.

But age has crept up on the building, dedicated in 1763. The walls are deteriorating with mold, white paint chips litter the ground, a brass chandelier is slowly corroding and a poor ventilation system can make the sanctuary uncomfortable.

So now a massive restoration is under way, the first in decades, as part of a $10 million campaign that also includes money to build visitor facilities. The synagogue has been temporarily closed and sheathed in a white covering; the restoration is expected to conclude in December.

“Two hundred and fifty years is great for the building to have lasted,” said Michael Balaban, a former Hebrew school teacher and leader of the Touro Synagogue Foundation. “But if we don’t start to act now, we certainly won’t get another 250 years out of the building.”

The history of the synagogue starts with a group of Sephardic Jews who arrived in 1658 in Rhode Island — a colony founded by Roger Williams and his followers on the principle of religious tolerance.

They established a congregation, and the synagogue was built a century later — designed by Newport architect Peter Harrison, whose other notable buildings include King’s Chapel in Boston.

George Washington visited in 1781 and later delivered a written proclamation guaranteeing that bigotry would not be tolerated in the new nation.

Two centuries later, President Kennedy attended services there, and called Touro “not only the oldest synagogue in America, but also one of the oldest symbols of liberty.” President Eisenhower also attended services at Touro, as did poet Robert Frost.

“When people come to our services, I think they’re inspired to know that 250 years ago … people were praying and had the privilege of praying as free citizens in a world that really didn’t have much religious tolerance,” said Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz, who leads the Orthodox congregation, Jeshuat Israel, that worships at Touro.

Because of the conservation work, the congregation has been meeting in a chapel across the street since early May.

Meanwhile, workers will recoat the exterior brick walls after using a chemical stripper to remove the existing 22 layers of paint. Modern wiring and new ventilation and sprinkler systems will be installed. The interior cloth wall covering will be removed to allow workers to get to mold underneath.

Construction of a two-building visitors center will begin after the conservation work ends.

It will include exhibits on Colonial Jewish history, the birth of religious freedom in America and a portrait gallery focused on distinguished Colonial-era Jews, among other features, Mr. Balaban said.

“These artifacts tell a story about history,” said Mr. Balaban, noting that all of Touro’s interior finishing, from candlesticks to lanterns, date back centuries. “They’re not just an old lamp that needs to be polished or an old Torah.”

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