Loeb Visitors Center celebrates 10 years

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“Well, we don’t like Hitler, but at least he’s killed the Jews.” Those were the words spoken to John J. Loeb in 1945, by his classmates at the Hotchkiss School. At the time, Loeb was 14 years old and one of only two Jews at the elite prep school. Loeb never forgot those hateful words. He credits that moment, along with reading George Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation,” as major factors in dedicating a large portion of his life to fighting religious intolerance.

Today, Loeb is nearly 90. Over the course of his life he has been the United States’ ambassador to Denmark, a delegate-at-large to the United Nations, a vintner and an art collector. He also founded the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, and endowed the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Visitors Center on the campus of Newport’s Touro Synagogue.

Touro is the oldest synagogue in the nation, and holds special meaning for Loeb, whose family tree can be traced back to the Touros.

In the late 1990s, several members of Touro’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel approached Loeb to ask for his help in building a new visitor’s center. Loeb agreed, providing a $12 million gift that built the visitors center, revamped the gardens of Patriot’s Park, and restored the historic Barney House, all on the Touro campus; construction of the visitors center was completed in 2009. Rabbi Marc Mandel, leader of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, said of the center, “We are grateful to John Loeb for this outstanding New England center, and for enhancing the Rhode Island educational landscape in such a significant manner.” 

The center features two floors of exhibits, beginning with a welcome video from Ambassador Loeb, in which he says, “The reason we have a visitors center is to give you an idea of what this whole campus is about… [it] has really become a symbol of religious freedom, liberty, and thought, and you’ll come out of here feeling that you can be yourself and be totally accepted in the world, no matter who you are.”

Following the video, visitors are guided to an extraordinary, two-story “portrait tree” featuring digitized images of American Jews from the pre-Civil War era. Visitors are able to use touchscreens in order to examine individual portraits and read short biographies of those depicted. The center also features exhibits on the Washington Letter and the Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663, as well as profiles of notable individuals. Of particular interest are the innovative, live-action ‘”vignettes” that recreate events related to Newport’s role in establishing religious freedom.

In celebration of its 10th anniversary the Loeb Visitors Center is offering free synagogue tours and center admission to all Rhode Island residents, through the end of the year. In addition, Ambassador Loeb has made available a limited number of complementary copies of “A Genesis of Religious Freedom: The Story of the Jews of Newport, RI and Touro Synagogue.” To receive a copy of this book, email info@gwirf.org, with the subject line, “Book Request.” To request a copy by mail, please write to the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, PO Box 670, Purchase, NY 10577.

For hours or to take a virtual tour, please visit the center’s website at www.loebvisitors.org.

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (mschemaille@jewishallianceri.org) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.