Thursday, June 2, 2016

June 2016

Saving Monticello: The Newsletter

The latest about the book, author events, and more

Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XIII, Number 6                                                                     June 1, 2016

OLDEST CONGREGATION & SYNAGOGUE:  Here’s a quick two-part quiz:
  • What is the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States?
  • What is the nation’s oldest synagogue?
If you answered Shearith Israel in New York City as the oldest congregation and Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode, Island, as the oldest synagogue, you go to the head of the class.

As I wrote in SavingMonticello, Shearith Israel was the first Jewish congregation established in North America. It was founded in 1654 by the first Jews who arrived in Niuw Amsterdam, as New York City was then known, from Recife, Brazil. Until 1825, it was the only Jewish congregation in the city.

Shearith Israel moved to its fifth and current home, a magnificent building at 70th Street and Central Park West (above), in 1897. Uriah Levy’s great grandfather, David Machado—who married Maria Caetana Nunez, the daughter of the family patriarch Dr. Samuel Nunez—moved from Savannah, Georgia, to New York to serve as hazzan of Shearith Israel in the 1740s. A hundred years later Uriah Levy joined the Congregation. His nephew L. Napoleon Levy (a brother of Jefferson Levy) served as president of Shearith Isreal in the 1890s. I had the pleasure of doing a talk there on the Levy Family and Monticello in March of 2002.

The congregation that would make its home in Touro Synagogue—which does not have a Nunez/Phillips/Levy family connection—was founded in 1658 as Nephuse Israel, also by Sephardic descendants of Jewish families who first went to the Caribbean to escape certain death during the Spanish Inquisition. The current Touro Synagogue was dedicated in 1763, making it the oldest in the nation. 

Touro—which was named for two of its congregants—recently won a legal battle with Shearith Israel in the District Court of Providence. It had to do with Touro’s proposed sale of an extremely valuable pair of 18th century silver ornaments called rimonim that sit on top of Torahs. Touro wanted to sell the finials to raise millions to keep the synagogue operating.

Shearith Israel argued that it owned not just the rimonim, but also the Touro synagogue itself. That’s because many of Touro’s congregants had moved to New York and joined Shearith Israel in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They closed the building, and took the keys to Touro and many other objects, including Torahs and rimonim, with them to Shearith Israel.

The objects were returned about a hundred years later when Rhode Island experienced a large wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern and Central Europe and the long-dormant Touro reopened.

“The central issue here is the legacy of some of the earliest Jewish settlers in North America, who desired to make Newport a permanent haven for public Jewish worship,” Judge John J. McConnell wrote in his decision, in which he ruled that Shearith Israel had been the trustee—not the owner—of Touro.

For more info on the dispute, here's an article in The New York Times.

·        Saturday, June 11  – 11:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. book signing of Saving Monticello at the Gift Shop at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.
  • Tuesday, June 14 10:20 a.m. talk on Flag: An American Biography, Brethren Village Retirement Community “Lunch & Learn” event, 3001 Lititz Pike, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
  • Saturday, June 18 – 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. book signing of Saving Monticello, Flag, Desperate Engagement, Lafayette, and What So Proudly We Hailed at “Eat Local, Read Local” event, Cascades Library, Potomac Falls, Virginia
  • Sunday, June 19 – 10:45 a.m. talk on Flag and book signing at LZ Maryland Writers’ Hootch, Maryland State Fairgrounds, Timonium, Maryland
  • Saturday, June 25 – Luncheon talk on Lafayette and book signing for Virginia Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims, Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Please email me if you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including What So Proudly We Hailed and Lafayette: Idealist General, my concise bio of the Marquis de Lafayette—at  For more details on other upcoming events, go to  That’s the “Author Events” page on my website,

Facebook, Twitter: If you’re on Facebook, please send me a friend request. If you’re on Twitter, I’d love to have you as a follower.

Gift IdeasIf you would like a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello, e-mail me at Or go to this page of my website: to order copies through my local bookstore, Second Chapter Books in Middleburg, Virginia. We also have copies of Desperate Engagement, Flag, Lafayette, and What So Proudly We Hailed.