Friday, April 19, 2013

Author's note: A Notable Occupation

Aaron Lopez

Aaron Lopez and Isaac Touro are two figures who epitomize colonial Jewish history in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War. The first was a successful businessman who persevered in his goal to obtain rights of citizenship from a colonial government. However, it was Massachusetts Bay Colony that naturalized Aaron Lopez, not the colony of Rhode Island. During the colonial rebellion and throughout the War of Independence, Aaron Lopez was an ardent patriot, putting his own fortune at risk and eventually bankrupting himself to support the American cause, particularly by providing arms for the American troops.

Isaac Touro, on the other hand, was a loyalist who insisted Britain had proven itself a friend to the Jew while the Americans had not clearly stated how they would, or even if they would, allow Jews to permanently settle in North America. Touro risked his health, his reputation, and even the safety of his family to stay in Newport to protect the synagogue the Jewish community had recently built there. It is because of Isaac Touro’s efforts the synagogue was not damaged during the British occupation of Newport and still stands today.

Touro and Lopez sacrificed
everything they had for the sake of
There are no images of Isaac Touro, but this is the
synagogue in Newport named after him and his children.
Jewish security in a changing political world, though they stood on opposite sides of the conflict. But neither man lived to see that dream realized. Lopez died in 1782 in a freak accident, Touro in 1783 from an illness.

In addition to these two men who seemed so different and yet shared so many characteristics, the Jewish involvement in the Revolutionary War concerns two islands that also seem very different at the outset, but shared many experiences during the war: Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay and St. Eustatius Island in the Caribbean Sea.

The Jews of Newport, on Aquidneck Island, were instrumental in establishing a permanent place for Jews in the North American colonies with the construction of their synagogue in 1763. Newport was one of the busiest ports in the American colonies before 1775, but when the British occupied the island, they destroyed Newport’s vibrant trade. Likewise, St. Eustatius, a Dutch free port, was known as the ‘Golden Rock’ until the British occupied it in 1781. This colony also had a significant Jewish population who built a synagogue there as a testament to their permanent status on the island.

Honen Dalim synagogue,
The Dutch government in St. Eustatius was the first foreign power to formally recognize American sovereignty by saluting a ship bearing American colors. St. Eustatius also was the port from which arms and secret correspondence from Europe made their way to the Continental Congress. However, as with Newport, the British occupation destroyed trade in St. Eustatius. After the war, neither of the Jewish communities of Newport and St. Eustatius recovered, mainly because those who survived moved on to more economically-secure ports.

After a period of disuse, the synagogue in Newport has been restored and revived. Today it is a national historic site as well as an active congregation called Jeshuat Israel. After being burned down in 1781, Honen Dalim synagogue on St. Eustatius was partially repaired. However, when the last Jewish resident of Statia died in 1846, the synagogue fell into ruin. In 2001 St. Eustatius began its Historic Core Restoration Project which will include the restoration of the synagogue to be used as a Jewish museum.

You can read about Aaron Lopez, Isaac Touro, and the British occupation of Newport and St. Eustatius in A Notable Occupation, available on

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