Touro Synagogue, dedicated in 1762, is the oldest synagogue in the United States and the only one that survives from the colonial era. The congregation was founded in 1658 by Sephardim, descendants of Marranos who fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal and who were themselves seeking a haven from religious persecution in the Caribbean. A trap door under the bema is symbolic of their fear and apprehension. But in America they, like millions of others, found the religious toleration they had so long sought.
In his famous letter to "The Hebrew Congregation in Newport," written in 1790, President George Washington pledged that the new nation would" give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance" and thereby set the standard for religious freedom and civil liberties in America. The synagogue was designed by noted colonial architect Peter Harrison and is considered one of the finest examples of 18th century architecture in America. Today, it continues to serve an active congregation.