2016-05-19 / Front Page

Touro Decision Issued

Synagogue to Remain in Local Control
By Barry Bridges

These two magnificent Torah finial bells, known as rimonim, are placed on the case holding the Torah scroll. Pictured here at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. These two magnificent Torah finial bells, known as rimonim, are placed on the case holding the Torah scroll. Pictured here at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A federal court has sided with Newport’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel in its dispute with a New York congregation over the control of Touro Synagogue and its artifacts.

In a decision coming after several years of litigation and a two-week bench trial last June, U.S. District Court Judge John McConnell held on Monday, May 16, that Jeshuat Israel holds Touro, the nation’s oldest synagogue, in a charitable trust to provide a place for public Jewish worship consistent with the intent of Newport’s earliest Jewish settlers.

Moreover, McConnell determined the Newport congregants are the owners of a pair of Colonialera finial bells, or rimonim, whose proposed sale prompted dueling claims between two historic congregations.

“This decision is extremely important,” said Steven Snow, a Jeshuat Israel attorney. “[It] will ensure that the nation’s oldest synagogue will continue to serve as a public place of worship forever.”

The dispute began in 2012 when Jeshuat Israel proposed the sale of the rimonim to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for $7.4 million to improve its financial picture and set up an endowment. New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel got word of the sale and demanded that Jeshuat Israel cease and desist from selling the bells, further claiming ownership in the synagogue and its contents and seeking to evict the local congregants.

McConnell relied on an exhaustive review of the intertwined history of the two congregations in rejecting Shearith Israel’s claims on Touro and the rimonim, and looked at the case from a broader perspective.

“Bricks and mortar of a temple, and silver and gold of religious ornaments, may appear to be at the center of the dispute between the two parties in this case, but such a conclusion would be myopic,” he wrote at the outset of the 106- page opinion. “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.”

That legacy began around the mid-18th century, when the early Jewish community in Newport became large and prosperous enough to support its own place of worship. Touro was accordingly dedicated in 1763. But the majority of Newport’s Jews left the area during the Revolutionary War years, and religious services at Touro were discontinued in the late 1700s.

Some displaced members joined the New York congregation, and religious articles, including the rimonim, were placed for safekeeping with Shearith Israel, which also became the trustee of Touro to oversee the property.

In the 1870s a Jewish community began to re-form in Newport and became known as Jeshuat Israel, which has worshiped at Touro since then and is the only established Jewish congregation currently in Newport.

Shearith Israel returned the rimonim to Newport’s Jewish community as originally agreed around 1900, and as trustee leased the synagogue to Jeshuat Israel. The interactions between the two congregations decreased over the years, with each increasingly attending to its own affairs.

The court found that Shearith Israel had not taken any meaningful action as Touro’s trustee for at least two decades, which played into its decision to remove the New York congregation from its position as trustee and appoint Jeshuat Israel as the new trustee.

McConnell found that Shearith Israel’s attempt to evict the Newport congregation made it unfit to serve in a trustee role. “Through this litigation, Shearith Israel is seeking to evict Jeshuat Israel from Touro synagogue, without any other congregation standing ready to take its place,” he wrote. “This act would undermine the very reason for the trust’s existence – public Jewish worship in Newport.”

The judge continued to say that New York’s bid to “evict the only organized Jewish congregation in Newport from Touro does not bode well for its continuing capacity to maintain the synagogue for public Jewish worship” and that “by disavowing the trust and seeking to evict Jeshuat Israel from its place of worship, Shearith Israel has shown itself unfit to serve as trustee.”

As for making Jeshuat Israel the new trustee, he wrote that the congregation “has been discharging all of the responsibilities of a trustee for the past century, and is the most appropriate new trustee over the Touro Synagogue and lands. It is the party most capable of continuing to preserve Touro Synagogue as a place of public Jewish worship.”

“Evicting [Jeshuat Israel] from Touro Synagogue is unthinkable,” he concluded. “Appointing it as the legal owner and trustee for the synagogue only recognizes in law, that which is already obvious in fact.”

The court also found that Jeshuat Israel proved by a preponderance of the evidence that it is the owner of the rimonim, made for the Newport congregation by Colonial silversmith Myer Myers.

Even without direct evidence of ownership by the early Newport congregation, McConnell held, especially in light of the fact that the New York congregation returned the bells to Touro, that “continuous possession of the rimonim for the past century entitles [Jeshuat Israel] to a strong presumption of ownership, which Shearith Israel did not come close to overcoming. The court concludes that Jeshuat Israel owns the rimonim and is free to do with them as it wishes.”

Attorneys for Shearith Israel have not indicated whether they will appeal the decision, and it is not clear if Newport’s congregation will once again seek to sell the rimonim. The Museum of Fine Arts withdrew its $7.4 million offer when the finial bells became the subject of litigation. Touro officials were not available for comment as of press time.

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