2017-08-17 / Front Page

Court Rules on Touro Synagogue Ownership

By Brooke Constance White

An appellate court in Massachusetts recently overturned a U.S. District Court ruling about who ultimately owns the oldest synagogue in America.

The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston issued a decision on Aug. 2 that the Touro Synagogue building in Newport is owned by New York City-based Shearith Israel rather than Jeshuat Israel, the congregation that has been worshiping there for more than 100 years.

In the 21-page decision, Justice David H. Souter, a retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, stated that, according to a lease dating back to 1903, Congregation Shearith Israel owns the building, fixtures and land located at 85 Touro St. in Newport.

As previously reported by Newport This Week, the case opened in 2012 after Touro’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel began experiencing financial difficulties and sought to sell one of two pairs of 18th-century silver ceremonial bells, called “rimonim.” Proceeds were to be put in an irrevocable endowment, with the interest maintaining the synagogue and ensuring the continuation of services.

The Newport congregation worked with Christie’s Auction House to find a buyer and accepted a $7.4 million offer from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Once the New York congregation discovered the plan to sell the rimonim, it objected, claiming ownership of the property and thus the rimonim. A lawsuit filed by the Newport congregation followed.

The two congregations are interwoven in many ways, dating back to the early 1800s, when most Jews left Newport fearing persecution stemming from the American Revolution. The synagogue closed, and the ownership and management of the property, building and contents transferred to the New York congregation.

When Jews re-established worship in Newport in the late 1800s, the New York congregation sent the contents back, including the bells recently at issue. The Newport congregation signed a lease in 1903 to rent the synagogue from the New York congregation for a nominal sum of $1 per year, and that arrangement played into the controversy.

A 2001 agreement made among three parties, the Newport congregation, a supportive organization known as the Society of Friends of Touro Synagogue, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, describes the Newport congregation as having "possession of the site through a lease with Congregation Shearith Israel as owner,” confirming that the Newport congregation had no legal claim beyond that of a holdover tenant under the terms of the 1903 lease, as formally renewed in 1908.

According to Souter’s ruling, however, although “there was an allusion to personal property in [the Newport congregation’s] obligations to the other two parties to protect and conserve ‘the related collections in its ownership, possession or control,’ no object was mentioned as being within any of the three categories, and nothing can be inferred from this provision about the ownership of the rimonim.”

Louis Solomon, attorney for the New York congregation, said his client is gratified that the appeals court looked at the case so thoroughly and ended up correcting the district court’s previous ruling.

“Now we’re hoping that these two congregations can put this behind them because there is so much more that we have in common than apart,” Solomon said in a phone interview after the ruling. “We want to move forward harmoniously and we have been waiting to hear from the Newport congregation. We’ve offered up several olive branches of peace.”

According to Solomon, the Newport congregation wants to ask for an extension to continue litigation, which is their right as a litigant, but will simply delay the process.

“We need to experience healing now,” he said. “It’s been five years and we need to get back to the business of serving Jews and people of faith in America.”

Until the Newport congregation sued for ownership, Solomon said the New York congregation sought to “preserve the Touro Synagogue as an active house of worship.” With the new ruling, it will continue in that role.

Attorney Gary P. Naftalis, counsel for Congregation Jeshuat Israel, said his client is disappointed in the ruling and will be petitioning for a rehearing.

“We remain committed to preserving Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue and the cradle of religious liberty in the United States, as a place of public worship for Jews and to safeguarding the rights of Jeshuat Israel, the Congregation that has prayed at and protected Touro for over a century,” Naftalis said in an email to Newport This Week.

Visit newportthisweek.com to read more background on the dispute.

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