Sometimes place names in vastly different cities are just a coincidence or they are very generic, every city likely has a Washington Street and Martin Luther King’s name appears quite often as well. Sometimes though a very uncommon name is encountered and it is interesting to look up the link. In this instance, during a recent trip through Rhode Island just that happened. In Newport, a beautiful coastal city at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, the name “Touro” popped up quite a bit—Touro Synagogue and Touro Cemetery are both on Touro Street and Touro Park is a stone’s throw away. Anyone familiar with the medical field in Las Vegas is sure to know of Touro University in Henderson near the Auto Show Mall. There had to be a connection, but what?
As it turns out, our Touro University is an extension of the Manhattan based Touro College and University System. Touro University has no direct connection to Newport or Rhode Island, so the mystery remained. But not for long; Touro University was named in honor of Judah and his brother Abraham Touro. The Touro brothers were some of America’s first philanthropists and their hometown was Newport.
The Touro Synagogue is actually the oldest extant synagogue in the hemisphere. There are older synagogues in the Caribbean and South America; however, most of them have been rebuilt at some point or were abandoned completely. Isaac Touro, the father of the Touro brothers, was a central figure in the founding of the synagogue and latter both brothers donated generous sums to the upkeep of the place of worship.
Just a brisk walk away from the Touro Synagogue lays the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the United States, the Touro Cemetery. It is rather small and the gates are rarely open, but visitors can see most of the markers within it from the fence. The cemetery dates to 1677, but was not well cared for until Judah Touro donated a huge amount of money to the restoration and preservation of the burial ground in the early 1800s. Judah, Abraham, and their mother and father are all buried here.
This ancient cemetery inspired a Longfellow poem. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited Newport in 1852 he was surprised to find a Jewish burial ground in a New England port town and was more impressed with it than with the synagogue. His poem was simply titled “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.”
Longfellow was certainly not the first major historical figure to visit this community. George Washington, accompanied by then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, visited Newport in 1790. He spoke with many prominent citizens of the town including the Jewish community. A few days afterward he wrote a letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.” In this letter Washington assures them that bigotry and persecution have no place in the newly formed United States of America.
The Newport Tower has been at the forefront of many alternative history theories since the 1830s. Officially, it is the remains of a stone windmill built in the 1670s but its medieval castle look has led many to suggest it was really built centuries earlier by either the Knights Templar, Vikings, or pre-Columbian Portuguese explorers. And we have Judah Touro to thank that this mysterious tower or windmill, whichever the case may be, is still around. As the city of Newport grew, new houses and businesses crept closer and closer to the structure. Judah wished to save this odd relic from possible destruction and purchased it and the land around it and then turned it over to the city for use as a public park, which it is to this day. Hence the origin of Touro Park.
Touro University, known for their nursing and physician assistant programs, was named in memory of the Touro family for good reason. In 1852 Judah founded a free hospital in New Orleans, the Touro Infirmary, to care for victims of the yellow fever. That and a lifetime of charitable donations to many causes throughout the country led Bernard Lander to name the Touro College after this influential Jewish family when he founded it in 1971.
It is interesting how, even when nearly 2,000 miles away, one can end up learning something new about their hometown. They say that everything is interconnected and in way that proves to be true more often than not. Next time I see the Touro University building from the US 95 freeway, I will definitely think of Newport and how it rained the entire time I was there, but that is a different story altogether.
Touro Synagogue is located at 72 Touro St, Newport, Rhode Island. The cemetery is about a block east on the corner of Touro and Key Streets. The Newport Tower and Touro Park are at 152 Mill Street, a short walk past the cemetery. Parking can be difficult in the historical section of Newport so it best to just walk to each of these locations once you snag a spot.