Within a matter of months, the congregation at Touro Synagogue will celebrate the 250th anniversary of America’s oldest Jewish house of worship. But the members of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, who have prayed at the Newport, R.I., building for generations, may have to celebrate outside.
That’s because an argument over a dazzling pair of silver Torah finials — the ornamental bell-like covers that decorate a Torah’s handles — has escalated into a bitter legal battle over the synagogue itself.
The synagogue-vs.-synagogue battle is being waged between America’s oldest Jewish congregation, New York’s Shearith Israel, which was founded in 1654 and Jeshuat Israel, which traces its roots to 1658.
A judge has barred both sides from talking to the media. But court papers filed in Rhode Island and in New York reveal that the Newport congregation is seeking to remove Shearith Israel as trustees of the synagogue so that it can sell the bells, known as rimonim.
Angered by the proposed sale, Shearith Israel asked the court to reaffirm its long-standing position as legal owner of the synagogue. It also wants the judge to block Jeshuat Israel from using Touro in any way.
“Shearith Israel owns… the building, real estate and any and all historic [artifacts] used by or for Touro Synagogue,” the New York congregation asserted in papers filed this past December in Rhode Island federal court. “Jeshuat Israel should be removed as lessee of Touro Synagogue.”
A federal judge has set an April deadline for the synagogues to resolve the dispute amicably.
Embarrassing as the current fight may be, the underlying causes of the conflict have been brewing for some time.
In recent years, the aging and shrinking Newport congregation — in court papers, Jeshuat Israel says it has 143 members — has become increasingly desperate for funds. In 2009, Jeshuat Israel’s leaders floated the idea of selling off assets, including the Torah finials now under dispute, to raise an endowment that would fund a rabbi in perpetuity.