George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom

A Genesis of Religious Freedom

A Genesis of Religious Freedom Book

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In A Genesis of Religious Freedom: The Story of the Jews of Newport, RI and Touro Synagogue, Dr. Melvin I. Urofsky recounts the unique history of Jewish settlers in Rhode Island—the first colony to grant its citizens freedom to worship in the manner of their choosing.

Drawn to the promise that in Roger Williams’ Rhode Island colony “none shall be disturbed in their worship,” Newport’s Sephardic Jewish settlers were innovators, helping lead the town into its economic “Golden Age.” It was to the Newport Jewish community that George Washington wrote his powerful Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in 1790, promising that the U. S. government would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Newport’s diversity and religious tolerance enabled this community to thrive and, in 1763, to dedicate a synagogue—America’s oldest standing synagogue and a National Historic Site. Today, more than 250 years since its dedication, Touro Synagogue remains home to an active Jewish congregation continuing in the spiritual tradition of Newport’s early settlers.

Written for a general audience of all ages, in a captivating and easy-to-read format, Urofsky explores the richness of this ethnic community in a cosmopolitan New England seaport. Full-color illustrations illuminate participation in political, social, economic and civil life. The book provides readers of all religions with insights into an often overlooked, important and inspiring aspect of American history.

Urofsky notes that, “Starting in the late 1890’s, a remarkable series of events led to the revitalization of the community and Touro Synagogue. In 1947, Congress declared the building a national historic shrine. Since then, Jews of Newport and across the United States have restored and beautified the Touro Synagogue and its surrounding park.” The latest chapter in the synagogue’s history began in 2009 with the opening of the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Visitors Center, gateway to Touro Synagogue National Historic Site.

The book was published with the generous support of The David Berg Foundation, a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund; and Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr.

About the Author

Melvin Urofsky

Melvin I. Urofsky is Professor of Law & Public Policy and Professor Emeritus of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. He received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University, and his J.D. from the University of Virginia. Over the years he has held fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the American Historical Association and others. He was a Rich Fellow at Oxford University’s Center for Jewish Studies, a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of New South Wales Law School in Sydney, Australia, a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow at the Bellagio Center in Italy, and a visiting scholar at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. Under the auspices of the State Department, Urofsky has lectured in Europe, Asia and Australia, and has spoken at many colleges and law schools in the United States. This is the fifty-fourth book Urofsky has either written or edited, several of which have won prestigious awards. He has been the editor for the past nineteen years of the Journal of Supreme Court History.