2015-09-24 / Front Page

Touro Outcome in Hands of Federal Judge

By Barry Bridges


No decision yet—At the center of everyone’s attention are these two magnificent Torah finial bells, known as rimonim, which are placed on the case holding the Torah scroll. Pictured here at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, they are the work of the Jewish silversmith Myer Myers (1723-1795), a contemporary of Paul Revere, and who is thought to have produced some of the finest religious silver in Colonial America. Torah scrolls are stored in the holiest part of the synagogue in the “Holy Ark” (literally, the holy cupboard). The finials are at once decorative and deeply significant: When the Torah is raised, the ringing of the bells is a signal to the congregation for reverence. No decision yet—At the center of everyone’s attention are these two magnificent Torah finial bells, known as rimonim, which are placed on the case holding the Torah scroll. Pictured here at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, they are the work of the Jewish silversmith Myer Myers (1723-1795), a contemporary of Paul Revere, and who is thought to have produced some of the finest religious silver in Colonial America. Torah scrolls are stored in the holiest part of the synagogue in the “Holy Ark” (literally, the holy cupboard). The finials are at once decorative and deeply significant: When the Torah is raised, the ringing of the bells is a signal to the congregation for reverence. Amid the Jewish high holidays, attorneys in the Touro Synagogue lawsuit made their closing arguments to U.S. District Court Judge John J. McConnell on Friday, Sept. 18, in a federal courtroom in Providence.


Reading from the Torah scrolls during a prayer service. Touro Synagogue has been an important spiritual anchor and house of worship for the Yeshuat Israel congregation since its completion in 1763. It currently includes approximately 125 member families. Reading from the Torah scrolls during a prayer service. Touro Synagogue has been an important spiritual anchor and house of worship for the Yeshuat Israel congregation since its completion in 1763. It currently includes approximately 125 member families. The suit may have implications for who has control at Touro, with Newport worshippers sparring with the nation’s oldest Jewish congregation over their respective interests in the synagogue building. But the litigation was prompted when Newport’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel (CJI) moved to sell a pair of 18th-century silver ceremonial bells to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Known as rimonim, the bells were made by noted Colonial silversmith Myer Myers and have an estimated value of $7.4 million. The proceeds would be used to strengthen what congregants have described as a shaky financial picture at Touro. After learning of the plans, New York City’s Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI) objected to the sale and claimed ownership of the rimonim. The disagreement broadened to encompass questions about rights to the synagogue itself.

A battalion of white-shoe attorneys was on deck as each side outlined their positions on the bells and the temple property. Testimony concluded in June, but wrapping up the proceedings was delayed by post-trial briefings.

Making oral arguments for CJI were attorneys Gary P. Naftalis, who practices in Manhattan, and Steven E. Snow of Providence. Louis M. Solomon of New York’s Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP took the podium for CSI.

The intertwined histories of the congregations make the facts difficult to decipher. Construction of Touro was completed in 1763 and the building was dedicated in December of that year. By the early 1800s, however, it was being used infrequently. When most Jews left Newport, Touro was closed, with the management of the building and its contents being transferred to CSI. When Jews later reestablished themselves in Newport in the late 1800s, Shearith Israel sent the contents back, including the bells now at issue. CJI signed a lease in 1903 to rent the synagogue from CSI for a nominal sum of $1 per year, and that arrangement plays into the current controversy.

The case is a bench trial with McConnell acting as the jury, so the scene differed from those typically depicted in television courtroom dramas in that the judge interjected questions of his own as the attorneys marshaled their closing arguments.

“Today, you have the benefit of hearing from the jury,” McConnell told the attorneys. He described his task as examining 250 years of evidence, with some factors weighing in favor of CJI and others in favor of CSI. “Walk me through who owns the rimonim, because there’s a dearth of info at some times, but very definitive evidence at other times. Help guide the court as to who owns these sacred objects,” said the judge.

He added, “Let me be clear, there is no smoking gun in this case.”

Each side thereupon launched into their reasoning, with different interpretations of 18th- and 19th-century documents which traced the history of the synagogue and the movement of the bells.

Naftalis was first to the podium, chronicling the presence of the rimonim at Touro and describing what he viewed as earlier admissions from CSI that they were owned by the Newport congregation. He noted that scholars have concluded that they were made specifically for Newport by Myers. “With all of this, the weight of the evidence is surely on our side,” said Naftalis.

Referencing the period of time when the bells moved to New York, he remarked, “Safekeeping doesn’t mean ownership.” Moreover, to rebut any assertion that the lease could provide some clue as to the parties’ assumptions about the rimonim, Naftalis argued that the lease encompasses only real property and fixtures. “You can’t lease something you don’t own,” he said.

“For 120 years, we have held out to the world that we own the rimonim and we have exhibited every indicia of ownership. If [CSI] owned them, would they allow us to hold ourselves out as the owner?” asked Naftalis. “That’s not how an owner behaves. If I had a Picasso, I’d identify it [in relevant documents] and not let others say they owned it…. Our view is that there are 7.4 million reasons that they became interested in it.”

In his presentation, Solomon offered a different interpretation. He said that because CJI didn’t exist when the rimonim were made, Newport’s ownership claim falls flat. “They were for a completely different [predecessor] congregation…. Shearith Israel is recognized as the successor to the property and the personalty and we have acted consistently with ownership,” he said, reminding the judge that his experts testified that the rimonim were owned by CSI by the mid-1800s and that they were simply loaned back to Newport.

Solomon also emphasized his position that the bells are part of the building lease, a “clear road mark” that indicates CSI’s interests. He said that since the rimonim adorn the Torah, it is not unusual they aren’t specifically mentioned in the lease. “The lease has been in effect for over 100 years. It is not a financial lease, but a lease about culture and ritual. It is pellucidly clear that personal items [such as the bells] are included.”

“I wish I could agree with you that anything in this case is so clear,” said McConnell.

As far as the synagogue building, Snow contended that CSI became the trustee of the property under the will of Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, who acquired the Touro land for the Newport congregation, and that CJI is the trust beneficiary. Naftalis then said that CSI “has been uninterested and uninvolved and uncaring for more than a century and should be removed as trustee.”

In turn, Solomon observed that CSI “never got any complaints about our trusteeship,” but maintained that in any event a traditional trust was not created. He said the two congregations enjoy a “relationship” where “CSI has oversight over the customs and rituals of what goes on there. At Shearith Israel, we do not sell ritual objects and we object to them doing that.” CSI asserts that no one group has exclusive rights to worship at Touro.

It is unclear how long it will take McConnell to review the evidence and issue his decision on the synagogue or the rimonim. “It will be a while,” he said as he left the bench.

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