The oldest synagogues in New England were built well after the first Jewish settlers arrived.
Touro Synagogue, the only surviving synagogue from the Colonial era, was consecrated in 1763, nearly a century after the first Sephardic Jews arrived in Newport, R.I.
Several synagogues in New England were built on bequests from Judah Touro, the son of the Touro Synagogue’s hazzani. In his will he left endowments to 23 Jewish congregations in 14 states—including Hartford and Boston. (He also saved the Bunker Hill Monument.)
New England’s oldest synagogues were all built in cities within walking distance of their congregation. Many of them have since been converted to other uses, as their members moved to the suburbs.
Here are the six oldest synagogues in each New England state.
Beth Israel, West Hartford
Connecticut law allowed only the Christian religion until 1843. That year, Hartford Jews asked the General Assembly for the right to worship. Lawmakers passed a law that said, “Jews who may desire to unite and form religious societies shall have the same rights, powers and privileges which are given to Christians of every denomination.’
A small group of mostly German Jews organized Beth Israel as an orthodox congregation. For 19 years it was the only Jewish congregation in Hartford. In 1855, Judah Touro left in his will money for the congregation to buy its first building, a former Baptist church. After a fire destroyed the building, the congregation in 1876 hired an Irish architect to design what is now the oldest synagogue in Connecticut.
Beth Israel moved to its current building in 1936, leaving its synagogue to become the Charter Oak Cultural Center.
In 1991, the Connecticut Historical Commission and the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford conducted a survey of 46 historic synagogues in the state. By the mid-1990s, 15 of Connecticut’s oldest synagogues were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, more than any other state at the time.
21 Charter Oak Ave., West Hartford, Conn.
Shaarey Tphiloh, Portland
In 1900, Portland had 80 Jewish families among its 50,000 residents. The oldest had arrived in the 1860s from Poland and Russia, and many were clothing and dry goods merchants. They had shops in the Lower Munjoy Hill area.
Up until 1900, three orthodox congregations worshipped in members’ homes, in rented spaces or at the Middle Street synagogue of the Sharith Israel congregation. The congregation ran a B’nai B’rith lodge, a Hebrew elementary school and a Jewish cemetery in Cape Elizabeth.
That year, the two other congregations decided to band together, build a synagogue and hire a rabbi. By 1904, the congregation raised enough money to build Shaarey Tphiloh, ‘Gates of Prayer,’ on Newbury Street. The first rabbi, Isaac Marcus, was a Russian who held services in Yiddish. Not until 1917 were services held in English.
Rabbi Marcus was followed by Rabbi Chaim Shohet, a distinguished Talmudic scholar who disagreed with the temple’s board of directors when it fired the cantor. The board then fired Rabbi Shohet, and according to legend moved his chair from the sanctuary to the bathroom. Some members of Shaarey Tphiloh followed him to Congregation Adas Israel on Middle Street.
Shaarey Tphiloh followed its congregation to the suburbs after World War II and built a new synagogue on Noyes Street in 1956. In 2016, the shrinking congregation moved to a smaller building nearby.
145 Newbury St., Portland, Maine
Beth Israel, Boston
Puritan Boston didn’t exactly welcome Jews or any other outsiders, so the city’s Jewish population remained tiny for its first two centuries. In the 1830s, Boston’s booming commerce attracted Jewish immigrants from the German provinces, as well as second- and third-generation Jews from other U.S. cities. They were peddlers, shopkeepers, merchants, opticians, furriers, jewelers and tailors.
Boston’s first significant Jewish congregation started when young Jewish families and single men gathered at a bris for the firstborn son of a Polish capmaker. They decided to organize, Ohabei Shalom, and elected a German jeweler and real estate trader as its president.
Ethnic rivalries eventually tore the congregation apart. The Poles, or ‘Polanders,’ lived in the North End; the upwardly mobile Germans, or ‘Bayards,’lived in the South End. Services had been conducted according to the more formal German customs, but the Poles soon outnumbered the Germans, rejected the Bavarian rabbi Joseph Sachs and began to conduct services their own way.
In 1854, 25 families from southeastern Germany broke from Ohabei Shalom along with Rabbi Sachs. They tried to keep the name Ohabei Shalom partly because Judah Touro had left money in his will to the congregation. A two-year lawsuit followed, and the dissidents lost. They called themselves Kehillah Kedosha Adath Israel, or Congregation Adath Israel.
(Rabbi Sachs, by the way, left Boston in 1869 to start a school in New York. His sons, Julius and Samuel, married the daughters of Marcus and Bertha Goldman. Samuel Sachs and Marcus Goldman founded Goldman Sachs.)
Massachusetts’ Oldest Synagogue
In 1885, Temple Israel built what is now the oldest synagogue in Massachusetts on Columbus Avenue. It was designed in a historic revival style, popular in German-speaking lands, called Rundbogenstil. With twin towers and a rose window, the synagogue reflected the growing wealth and prestige of its members. Today that first synagogue is the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
In 1906, the congregation built Temple Israel on Commonwealth Avenue as a replica of Solomon’s Temple. The congregation then moved to the suburbs and in 1967 sold the building to Boston University, which now uses it for large lectures and events.
Temple Israel began building another massive synagogue in 1926 near the Brookline border, but the stock market crash of 1929 put a halt to construction. Today Temple Israel, the largest Reform congregation in New England, holds services in its modern synagogue on Longwood Avenue near Beth Israel-Deaconess Hospital.
600 Columbus Ave., Boston, Mass.
The first of New Hampshire’s Jewish synagogues was built in Portsmouth in 1905, though Jews had lived in the city since the 1790s. For more than a century they worshipped in private homes. They buried their dead in public cemeteries or in Jewish cemeteries in Dover and Somersworth.
Abraham and Rachel Isaac, Portsmouth’s first Jewish settlers, came from Prussia in 1789. He started out as an auctioneer, then opened a china shop. The Isaacs worshipped at their home on State Street, observed religious holidays and closed the store on Saturdays. They adopted a son, who moved away and married a minister’s daughter.
Abraham died in 1809: A local poet wrote his epitaph, including the words, “A faithful steward and an honest man.” Rachel moved away to be close to her son. For 50 years there was no record of Jewish people in Portsmouth.
By 1880, about 16 Jewish families lived in Portsmouth. By 1900 that number nearly doubled. In 1905 a Jew named Morris Port came from Newburyport and persuaded Portsmouth’s Jewish community to organize. By 1911 they had a rabbi, bylaws, the name of Temple Israel and a rented space in which to hold services. In 1912 they bought the old Methodist church on State Street and redecorated it in 1912.
The Jewish community grew around the synagogue in an area known as Puddle Dock, now Strawbery Banke. There were two kosher butchers, a Jewish bakery and three Jewish grocery stores.
Temple Israel renovated the building in 2007 and today congregants still sit on pews that date to 1827. A plaque stands outside Temple Israel, proclaiming it the first permanent Jewish house of worship in New Hampshire.
200 State Street, Portsmouth, N.H.
Touro Synagogue, Newport
Touro Synagogue, consecrated on Dec. 2, 1763, is the only synagogue built in Colonial America that still survives. Newport easily had the largest Jewish population in colonial New England, and Touro Synagogue is by far the largest and grandest of the early synagogues.
In 1658, 15 Sephardic Jewish families that escaped the Inquisition via Barbados arrived in Newport. They left a permanent mark on Newport by establishing a cemetery in 1677. Several more waves of Jewish families arrived from Curacao in 1690 and from New York in the mid-18th century. For all that time, Newport’s Jewish population met for worship in private homes.
Many Jews prospered as merchants in the sea trade. What is now Bellevue Avenue was lined with Jewish shops. By 1758 the Jewish population had so grown in size and prominence a permanent house of worship was needed.
Newport architect Peter Harrison, born and trained in England, volunteered to design the synagogue. He planned a building with a plain Georgian exterior that hides an elaborate interior. (Harrison also designed the Redwood Library in Newport and King’s Chapel in Boston.)
Isaac Touro, born in the Netherlands, the synagogue’s first hazzan, or minister. Grateful for England’s protection, he was a Loyalist and stayed in Newport when the British captured the town in 1776. Three years later he moved with the British to New York, where he had to depend on charity. In 1782 he moved to Kingston, Jamaica and died a year later.
Two of Touro’s sons, Judah and Abraham, became quite wealthy and gave generously to Jewish and Christian causes. Abraham gave enough money to maintain Touro Synagogue and the cemetery.
Washington and the Oldest Synagogue
Many of the congregation had been Loyalists like Isaac Touro and left with him for New York. The Jeshuat Israel congregation dwindled and disappeared for a time, but in 1790 it was still functioning.
Washington’s reply strongly supported religious freedoms for non-Christians. The government of the United States ‘gives to bigotry no sanction,’ Washington replied. The letter is recited annually at the synagogue.
The Jeshuat Israel congregation dwindled and turned Touro Synagogue over to a New York congregation, Shearith Israel. Jeshuat Israel reformed in 1903 and leased the building for $1 a year from Shearith Israel.
In 1946 the Touro Synagogue was designated a National Historic Site. Sixty-five years later, Jeshuat Israel tried to sell some of its historic artifacts. A lawsuit resulted. In an opinion written by retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, a federal court ruled the Shearith Israel congregation owned the Touro Synagogue. In August 2022, a judge ruled that Shearith Israel could not evict the Jeshuat Israel congregation. Jeshuat Israel then sought a long-term lease.
85 Touro St., Newport, R.I.
Ohavi Zedek, Burlington
Most were Lithuanian peddlers who discovered Burlington when they were traveling between New York and Montreal.
In the 1950s, Ohavi Zedek moved to a larger building not too far away. Then in the 1960s, hippies moved to Vermont and more Jews – including Bernie Sanders – followed.
Corner of Archibald and Hyde Streets in Burlington, Vt.
Images: Old Ohavi Zedek By Mfwills; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 02:00, 24 October 2013 (UTC) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29160508. With thanks to Becoming American Jews: Temple Israel of Boston by Meaghan Dwyer-Ryan, Susan L. Porter, Lisa Fagin Davis. Featured image of Touro Synagogue interior: By S.d.touro – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48760457. This story was updated in 2022.