NEWPORT, R.I. — In most of Colonial-era New England, it would have been about as hard to find a Jewish family as a grove of palm trees. But when George Washington visited Newport, R.I., in August 1790, the president found not just one Jewish family, but a Hebrew congregation with its own synagogue. They offered him a warm welcome to their community through a letter written by the leader of their congregation, Moses Sexias.
Four days later, Washington penned a cordial response, assuring them they could enjoy full citizenship in the new United States of America - welcome news to a community whose ancestors had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition.
Today, Jews still worship at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, and every August they - along with other supporters of religious freedom - file into the 18th-century Georgian building to read Washington's letter and to reflect on his words once again.
"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of," Washington wrote, "as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights." He also declared that the government gave "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
After centuries of persecution in Europe, Jews welcomed Washington's message of equality, which set the stage for the US to become home to the largest, most prosperous Jewish community in the world.
Washington's outreach to Jews was revolutionary, notes David Logan, dean of Roger Williams University's law school. America's Founding Fathers were unique in the world when they wrote freedom of religion into the laws of the new country, he says. "It's that pluralism and heterogeneity that make [America] a remarkable place."
In the spirit of that pluralism, this year's letter-reading event was officiated and attended by people of a variety of faiths.
The Rev. John Holt, a Methodist and executive minister for the interfaith Rhode Island Council of Churches, noted that the Touro Synagogue, dedicated in 1763 and the oldest surviving synagogue in the country, is "not a relic; it's a symbol of continuing religious tolerance."
It was America's religious freedom that allowed Jews eventually to be appointed to the highest bench in the country, said US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the keynote speaker.
But she also referred to "the persecution Jews have endured throughout history." She contrasted her experience on the bench with that of Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to become a member of the Supreme Court. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1876 at the age of 20 with the highest scholastic average in the history of the school. Despite his qualifications, he faced open anti-Semitism among his colleagues, one of whom refused to stand next to him for a Supreme Court photo.
In contrast, Justice Ginsburg said, she and her coreligionist, Justice Stephen Breyer, faced no such opposition.
Eliot Barron of West Hartford, Conn., seated in the synagogue's balcony, nodded emphatically at Ginsburg's remarks about Jews' persecution, almost sending his yarmulke flying into the crowd below.
To Dr. Barron and his wife, Vida, both of whose parents immigrated to the US from Eastern Europe, the occasion was a meaningful reminder of the refuge America provided their relatives and fellow Jews.
Logan, too, can bear witness to that. His father was a Sorbonne-educated lawyer from the Czech Republic who escaped the Nazis by working as a clown's assistant. He later fled to the US, where he worked as a busboy.
Logan credits the social mobility of Jewish immigrants such as his father to the religious freedom guaranteed by the American government. "There were definitely individuals, even powerful individuals, who behaved in an intolerant way," he said. "There remain intolerant individuals. [In the US,] someone has the right to be intolerant, but they can't have the government help them."