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Remembering Rhode Island's Prominent Jewish Families

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The Historical Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island traces its origins to 1658 when Mordecai Campanal and Moses Pacheco arrived from Barbados.

George Washington 1790

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.

Roger Williams

Driven from Massachusetts, Roger Williams, a Puritan minister, established Rhode Island and created the American precedent that would be carved in stone letters later in the American constitution -

  • religious toleration and the
  • separation of Church and State.

Jews could find a safe haven and home in Rhode Island where it was possible for those of differing religious beliefs to practice their religion freely, but not to participate as full citizens in civic affairs.

Jews were prevented from being naturalized or given the status of free denizens, and therefore could not vote or hold public office. They could hold property, however, and could bequeath property to their descendants.

Newport’s Jews would occasionally challenge Rhode Island’s restrictive laws of citizenship. In 1684 the laws were challenged by one of Newport’s earliest Jewish immigrants, Moses Campanal.

Also, in 1762, merchant Aaron Lopez was denied naturalization by a Rhode Island court and was forced to change his nominal residence to Swansea, Massachusetts in order to become a subject of George III and to be granted rights of citizenship in the Colonies.

In the 1740s, members of Congregation Shearith Israel were naturalized in New York. Several of these individuals later became prominent members of the Newport Jewish community, including Moses Levy, Moses Lopez, Jacob Rodriguez Rivera and Abraham Rodriguez.

Rhode Island, although it would not allow Jews to be naturalized, recognized the status of Jews who had been naturalized in other states.

Colonial Jews, including those in Newport, thus lived within a complex, somewhat contradictory framework of laws and practices regarding religion.

1. They were free to organize, worship and practice according to their historic rituals.

2. They were able to conduct business, travel, live wherever they chose in the community, and contribute to civic life, as long as their actions were seemly and appropriate to community values.

But they were unable to vote, to hold public office or to gain any other rights as citizens in many of the States. Despite these restrictions, Newport and its Jews served as models of the free expression of religious faith in colonial society.

Colonial Jewish RI Families

  • Moses Alvarez
  • Mordecai Campanal
  • Richard Gustavus Forrester
  • Moses Michael Hays
  • Moses Levy
  • Aaron Lopez
  • Gustavus Adolphus Myers
  • Moses Pacheco
  • Isaac Jacob Polock
  • Jacob Rodriguez Rivera
  • Moses Seixas,
  • Ezra Stiles
  • Isaac deToro (Touro),
  • Judah Touro

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport"

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,

And not neglected for a hand unseen,

Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,

Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green"

Poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This Project is just beginning, please feel free to join and edit or add any information.

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  • GW Source
  • Max J. Kohler, A. M., LL.B., The Jews in Newport (New York: The Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 6, 1897), pp. 20, 62.
  • Marcus, Jacob Rader. Jews in the Medieval World: A Source Book 315 to 1791.

Chapter 17, “Rhode Island Refuses to Naturalize Aaron Lopez 1762, p. 92 ff.

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