First we set up a cemetery, then we built a synagogue.
Jews can have religious services any place, but you need hallowed ground for a burial. Although the Newport cemetery was established in 1677, Touro Synagogue was consecrated in 1763.
Touro is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Rhode Island, established by the Sephardic Jewish immigrants originally from Spain and Portugal, who, fleeing the Inquisition, had next gone to Amsterdam and London, then to Brazil and finally Barbados. Arriving in Newport, they set up businesses dealing with shipping and commerce. Finally settled, they needed to buy land for a cemetery. While their congregation, Nephuse Israel (Scattered of Israel), did not have a building, they are considered the second oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. Land was bought by Mordechai Campanal and Moses Pacheco at the corner of what is now Kay and Touro Streets.
Who is buried in the cemetery? Almost all of those early settlers had Hispanic names: Alvares, Levy, Lopez, Rivera, Rodriguez, Seixas, Touro, and, interestingly enough, Hayes (see Longfellow’s poem below). Some of them died at a young age: Jacob Lopez (1755 - 1764), while others far exceeded the life expectancy of their era: Mrs. Judith Levy (1700 - 1788). In total, there are 44 burials, with the most recent being Edwin Rosenstein (1866). As a specifically Jewish cemetery, only Jews were buried there.
A fence was put around the plot, for which Judah Touro, Abraham’s brother, donated $11,000 in 1842. However, by 1850 the cemetery was rarely being used, as the Jewish population of Newport had fallen. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited the site and wrote a melancholy poem, The Jewish Cemetery at Newport, about how deserted it was;
The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.
But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.
In contrast to this view, Emma Lazarus, the famous Jewish poet who wrote the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, wrote a rebuttal of Longfellow, In the Jewish Cemetery at Newport, with a feeling of hope at the end:
For youth and happiness have followed age,
And green grass lieth gently over all.
Nathless the sacred shrine is holy yet,
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.