When in Newport…

With all of our kids in camp or working elsewhere for a good part of the summer, my wife and I stole away for a precious few days alone, and, like God said about Tuesday a long time ago, it was very good. Though our (four) children are increasingly independent and only our youngest will actually be living at home this year, your children are always your children, and coupled with the pressures of our jobs, it was wonderfully rejuvenating to be away with each other and no one else.

One of the places we visited was Newport, Rhode Island- a place we had long wanted to visit but simply had never gotten to. Large portions of the coastline of Newport are not commercially developed. I spent many of my childhood summers on the over-developed Jersey shore, and though I loved it, this was something else entirely, and much more special. It was so refreshing to be able to simply bike along the coastline and stop where one wanted to read, listen to music, or just contemplate the natural beauty. Newport is magnificent.

But being in Newport, of course, also provided us with the opportunity to spend Shabbat morning at the Touro Synagogue, one of America’s oldest, dating back to colonial times. It was to the leadership of Touro that George Washington wrote his famous letter declaring that America would, to bigotry, give no sanction. If only for that reason, it seemed to be almost an imperative to daven there. Our weekend coincided with the imminent onset of Tisha B’Av, so there was not a huge crowd, but that in no way colored the experience of being there, at least for me.

Earlier in my time off, I had indulged in watching the entire HBO mini-series on John Adams, and I loved every minute of it. Rarely do we allow ourselves to consider what remarkable people the founding fathers of this country were, and what enormous courage (some would and did call it other) they displayed in staging a revolution for independence from all-powerful England. Those were truly difficult and perilous times, and they discovered in themselves enormous reservoirs of wisdom and perseverance.

Sitting in the Touro Synagogue, one could close one’s eyes and imagine being back in the late 1700’s, wondering as a Jew whether the promise of America and its freedoms would extend to the fledgling Jewish community as well. The building looks and feels almost exactly as it did then, and it doesn’t really require all that much imagination to think those thoughts, even all these years later. Washington’s iconic reassurances to the Jewish community of colonial Newport still resonate with us today. The manifestations of hatred and bigotry ore more often than not more subtle than they were then, but the fact that America has provided such a welcoming home to us should never be forgotten.

It was so good to be away!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.