Community service highlighted at the 76th reading of the Washington Letter


NEWPORT – On Aug. 20, two historic letters were read aloud at Touro Synagogue, marking the 76th anniversary of this moving community ceremony. During each of these years, the audience has listened with rapt attention to the two eloquent letters, written at the dawn of our nation and dedicated to the establishment of religious freedom.

The first letter, written on Aug. 17, 1790, by Touro Synagogue Warden Moses Seixas and addressed to George Washington, the first president of the newly formed United States of America, expresses the anxiety of an oppressed minority and seeks assurance that “the children of the stock of Abraham” will find in the new nation, “all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship.”

This year’s letter-reader was Angela Johnson, a social studies teacher at Rogers High School and the 2021-2022 Newport Public Schools Teacher of the Year.

The second letter, President Washington’s historically important reply, was read by former Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who is now a visiting fellow in cybersecurity and democracy at Salve Regina University, in Newport. In this letter, dated Aug. 21, 1790, one year before the adoption of the Bill of Rights, Washington assures the Newport congregation that he endorses freedom of religion.

The theme of the day was community service. The program also featured the awarding of annual prizes to those who have worked or written in support of religious freedom and community service.

The Judge Alexander George Teitz Award was presented to Gorbea for her efforts as R.I. secretary of state to make voting accessible for all Rhode Islanders, including reforms that now serve as a model for other states.

Gorbea said she is “passionate about civic engagement with our government” and reminded the audience that democracy in America demands engagement by its citizens, as well as inclusion.

Former Congressman David Cicilline, now the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, was the keynote speaker. Cicilline began his remarks by saying that Newport’s Touro Synagogue is “the center – the origin – of religious freedom in America.”

“And if we are today celebrating the fact that a president came here to Rhode Island in 1790, and left us with something precious, in the form of George Washington’s letter to Moses Seixas, we are also celebrating a great gift from Rhode Island to the rest of the United States,”  he said.

But Cicilline did not shy away from reminding the audience of those who were left out of the founder’s vision and governmental protection, particularly indigenous Americans.

He also pointed out that in 1790, slavery and the slave trade were flourishing, which he characterized as the opposite of freedom.

Cicilline concluded on an optimistic note, pledging that as head of the Rhode Island Foundation, he will help to secure for all people the aspirations expressed in the letters: that we scatter light – not darkness – for everyone.

In the middle and at the conclusion of the day’s program, the audience was entertained by acclaimed soprano Alison Hosford, accompanied on piano by Suzanna Laramee, president of the board of directors of Newport Classical. The first selection was Florence Price’s “Hold Fast your Dreams,” with words by the poet Langston Hughes, and the second piece was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from the musical “Carousel.”

SAM SHAMOON, of Providence, is a member of the Touro Synagogue Foundation Board of Directors.

Touro, GW Letter, Teitz