2016-12-29 / Front Page

Touro Dispute Returns to Court

By Barry Bridges

Control over Touro Synagogue and its ritual objects is at the center of a lawsuit headed to federal appellate court. Control over Touro Synagogue and its ritual objects is at the center of a lawsuit headed to federal appellate court. A lawsuit to determine controlling interests in Newport’s Touro Synagogue and its finial bells is moving to a federal courtroom in Boston.

The case began several years ago when Touro’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel (CJI) began to have financial problems and decided to sell one of two pairs of 18th-century silver ceremonial bells, known as rimonim, crafted by noted Colonial silversmith Myer Myers. Proceeds from the sale were to be put into an irrevocable endowment, with the interest used to maintain the synagogue and ensure the continuation of services there. CJI engaged Christie’s to seek a buyer, and in 2012, a $7.4 million offer was made by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

After learning of those plans, New York City’s Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI) objected to the sale, asserting ownership of the rimonim and the synagogue building itself.

CSI’s claims are based in its intertwined history with Touro, which was dedicated in 1763 and is the oldest synagogue in the country. When the local Jewish congregation disbanded in the early 1800s, Touro and its contents were transferred to CSI, where many Newport families traced their roots. When Jewish congregants returned to Newport decades later, the items were sent back, including the rimonim. Their recent proposed sale revealed the congregations’ different understanding as to their respective rights to the synagogue and its ritual objects.

This past May, after reviewing extensive documentary evidence as to the nature of the 200- year relationship between the two congregations, U.S. District Court Judge John McConnell delivered an across-the-board win for the Newport congregation. He held that CJI holds Touro in a charitable trust to provide a place for public Jewish worship; that CJI should replace CSI as the trustee; and that CJI owns the rimonim outright and may sell them if it chooses.

Not ready to give up its fight, CSI is appealing the judge’s decision to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits in Boston. In its filings, the New York congregation outlines “a series of serious legal errors” that in its view require a reversal.

Regarding the finial bells, CSI says the court disregarded evidence showing its “prior and superior claim to possession,” pointing to a “set of agreements and writings between the parties that declare Shearith Israel’s right to control the ritual objects, including specifically the rimonim.”

Its brief continued, “From the viewpoint of Shearith Israel and many other Jews, CJI is trying to sell the birthright, not just of the Jews of Newport, but the Jews of the United States.”

Touro’s CJI argues that the rimonim were in New York only for safekeeping while there was no Jewish presence in Newport, and further says that CSI cannot overcome a legal presumption of ownership favoring CJI, which has possessed the rimonim for over 100 years.

In their appellate brief, lawyers for CJI wrote, “[This] presumption of ownership created by possession exists precisely for a case like ours, to resolve insoluble historical puzzles without having the court preside over a historical goose chase.”

Further, the New York congregation contends that “CJI offered no proof of financial insolvency, imminent financial collapse, or dire need” and that there was “just a feeling, common to nonprofits, that they were one large financial responsibility away from insolvency.”

CJI Vice President Bea Ross recently told Newport This Week, “When our financial picture became shaky, we looked at our assets and decided that we could sell one of the two sets of bells. Not because we wanted to, but because selling them, on balance, would secure the future of the synagogue.”

As for building itself, McConnell found that CSI had not taken any meaningful action as trustee for at least two decades. That, combined with his conclusion that CSI was attempting to evict the Touro congregants, played into his decision to remove CSI as trustee while appointing CJI as the new trustee. CSI is advancing various legal theories to challenge that result on appeal, and states that it “does not and will not seek eviction of the individual congregants of Jeshuat Israel who seek to worship at the Touro Synagogue.”

CJI counters that it is the most appropriate trustee because “by ensuring… that Touro remains open for public Jewish worship, CJI has [already] been discharging all of the responsibilities of a trustee for the past century.”

Ross said that the congregation’s lawyers, who are providing their services pro bono, are confident of their chances before the justices of the First Circuit. Oral arguments have not been scheduled.

In the interim, there are no immediate plans to sell the rimonim. The previous purchase offer by the MFA was rescinded with the onset of litigation, although one set is on loan to the museum. “Everything is on hold as far as moving forward on a permanent basis, but we have a favorable opinion from Judge McConnell, and that’s the law until the First Circuit speaks,” Ross said.

She continued, “The goal of the congregation has always been to keep Touro open as a house of worship and to have an active congregation. We have to secure the future of the synagogue.”

Return to top