Newport This Week

Jeshuat Israel Seeks Dismissal of Eviction Suit

A motion to dismiss the eviction suit faced by Congregation Jeshuat Israel, the organization that has held religious services inside the Touro Synagogue for well over a century, was argued before Judge Colleen Hastings in Newport District Court on June 27, part of a longstanding dispute with the owners of the property.

The most recent filing is part of a “complaint for repossession by ejectment” against CJI, who has operated the property since 1903.

The complaint was brought forth by Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI), the New York-based congregation that owns the synagogue.

The hearing was held at the Murray Judicial Complex in Washington Square, just a block from the institution that has served as a symbol of religious freedom for centuries, but is now the subject of a bitter landlord-tenant courtroom battle.

After numerous conflicts between the groups, CSI sent a notice to terminate CJI’s tenancy in late 2021. The New York congregation had been leasing the building to CJI for $1 per year since 1903, and have maintained in public statements it has no intention of seeking the removal of CJI or barring it from holding religious services there. But after numerous failed attempts at mediation, a district court suit seeking eviction was filed on Feb. 1.

The dispute began in 2011 when CJI moved to sell a set of ritual bells to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for a reported $7.4 million. CSI sued, citing an 18th century agreement that named it a trustee of the synagogue.

According to court documents, CSI filed a separate suit in 2012 to determine which organization had rights to the premises. A federal appeals court ruled in 2017 that “CSI is the fee owner of the Touro Synagogue building” and that “CJI’s interest in the synagogue building and related property . . . is solely that of holdover lessee.” The ruling was upheld in 2019 by the Unites States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

The conflict escalated when contractors hired by Ambassador John Loeb erected a grave marker for him in the historic Touro Jewish Cemetery. The CJI board voted in 1998 to allow Loeb to be buried in the historic cemetery in recognition of his philanthropy, a move for which CJI later apologized. In response, CSI demanded two voting seats on the board and functioning committees. The CJI board of directors subsequently voted not to comply with those requests.

CSI president Louis Solomon released a statement in February that reads, in part, “Our disagreement is solely with a few members of the CJI board, and we wish to restructure the group overseeing day-to-day activities of Touro Synagogue to restore trust and confidence that has historically existed, for close to 200 years, between Shearith Israel and Touro Synagogue.”

CJI filed the motion to prevent the court from exercising authority to remove them as tenants, citing previous case law that rests on a set of legal technicalities they claim CSI failed to comply with.

Arguing on their behalf, attorney Michael Crane told the court that because the initial notice was sent to the Levi Gale House at 85 Touro St., a property used as a Jewish community center owned by CJI but across the street from the synagogue, the eviction notice lacked merit.

Crane also argued that the date listed for which his clients were told to vacate the property, Jan. 31, 2022, was a day earlier than “the day succeeding the last day of [the] lease,” as he maintained legal precedent stipulates. Therefore, he argued, the documents were “defective.”

“You need to identify the [correct] Newport address,” he said. “There was no time given for my clients to actually vacate the property.”

Though both sides have made statements vowing a desire to find an amicable resolution, details cited during the hearing show two sides that appear far from a compromise.

Crane said his clients attempted to pay the $1 to CSI last February for the upcoming year, but the money was returned. In his rebuttal, CSI attorney Mitchell Edwards countered the entire legal premise being used to throw out the eviction was faulty, resting on a host of inconsequential administrative oversights that even if they occurred would not negate enforcement of the eviction.

“Even if [the address] was incorrect, that is not a basis for dismissal,” he said. “These proceedings are no more than a simple tenant eviction. It really strains credulity to think otherwise.”

The hearing concluded with Hastings moving to recess, saying the matter would be continued and the court would take the motion under advisement. No new court date had been scheduled as of June 29, according to the district court clerk’s office.

In a follow up conversation, Solomon said that CJI’s legal argument rested on minor technicalities that even if accepted by the court, a notion he found unlikely, would not change the ultimate outcome, but would instead lead to an appeal to a higher court or the refiling of the eviction.

“The arguments are hyper-technical and do not go to the substance of whether they should still be in possession [of the synagogue]. There is nothing that I believe the Rhode Island courts would find meaningful,” he said. “This [motion] does not get anybody anywhere and does not speak to the merits.”

CJI representatives vowed to continue the legal battle.

“We are confident in the arguments our attorney has put forward to the court and we look forward to the court’s ruling,” said CJI co-president, Louise Ellen Teitz. “We hope to be able to continue to worship in Touro Synagogue as we have for the last 130 years.”

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