Dazzling Torah Bells Spark Legal Battle for Touro Synagogue and Shearith Israel

Federal Court Fight May Leave Rhode Island Shul Out in Cold

Shul Fight: The proposed sale of this 18th century pair of silver Torah finials, or decorative bells, has sparked an ugly feud between two of America’s oldest Jewish congregations.
david bazarsky
Shul Fight: The proposed sale of this 18th century pair of silver Torah finials, or decorative bells, has sparked an ugly feud between two of America’s oldest Jewish congregations.

By Paul Berger

Published February 06, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
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The trustees of Shearith Israel backed the smaller of the two congregations, which comprised mostly German Jews. Named Jeshuat Israel, this congregation, which increasingly struggled to form a minyan, had access to Touro.

The larger congregation, which included mostly Poles and Russians and called itself the Touro congregation, prayed in various buildings around town. In 1902, the Touro congregation decided that as the largest congregation in town, it was the rightful heir to the building. During Passover, congregants broke into Touro and began praying there.

The noted historian Jonathan Sarna said he has heard tales that Newport police, responding to reports of a break-in at Touro, fought with members of the Touro congregation. After the police were called off, the Touro congregants staged continuous services in the synagogue so that Jeshuat Israel could not retake the sanctuary.

Touro’s congregation lost the ensuing court battle: In 1903, a Rhode Island federal court ruled that Shearith Israel was the rightful owner of the synagogue. But Touro won the war. Realizing that the larger Touro congregation was in need of a home, Shearith Israel helped the two Newport communities to merge, forming the single Newport congregation Jeshuat Israel.

A five-year lease written in 1903, in which Shearith Israel granted Jeshuat Israel permission to use Touro’s land and buildings for the sum of $1 a year, was submitted by lawyers for Shearith Israel as evidence in the current court cases.

Shearith Israel’s lawyers submitted it as one of several documents proving that the New Yorkers are the rightful owner of Touro and of the community’s related land and possessions.

That lease and a subsequent lease in 1908 also show that Shearith Israel maintained a close watch over the Newport congregation.

Although composed mostly of Ashkenazi Jews, Shearith Israel demanded that Jeshuat Israel’s services be conducted “according to the ritual rites and customs of the Orthodox Spanish and Portuguese Jews.” The Newport congregation could hire a rabbi only if it had Shearith Israel’s approval.

Gary Zola, executive director of the American Jewish Archives’ Jacob Rader Marcus Center, said that as the oldest congregation in North America, Shearith Israel “has always taken great pride in its own history and in the long history of Jewish life in America.”


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