American Jewish history goes on trial June 1 in a courtroom battle that could decide the future of the nation’s oldest synagogue.
At stake is a set of silver Torah bells known as rimonim, thought to be worth more than $7 million. But according to two warring congregations, the outcome could deeply affect Jewish life at Touro Synagogue, which was consecrated in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1763.
Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which has prayed in Touro Synagogue for more than 100 years, attempted to sell the rimonim to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2012 for $7.4 million.
The dazzling bells, which sit atop the handles of a Torah scroll, are thought to be one of just five pairs crafted by the celebrated Jewish colonial silversmith Myer Myers.
In court papers filed May 11 in Rhode Island District Court, the congregation says it would place the proceeds from the sale in an irrevocable trust, securing the financial future of a struggling community that is “one unforeseen expense away from financial disaster.”
“The loss of Jeshuat Israel would render Touro Synagogue a museum without an active congregation and rabbi,” the congregation says.
But America’s oldest congregation, Shearith Israel, located in New York, opposes the sale, saying that it owns Touro Synagogue and all the ritual objects inside it, including the rimonim.
“These are sacred objects,” Louis Solomon, president of Shearith Israel and an attorney who represents the congregation in the lawsuit, told the Forward. Solomon added that it would be “appalling” if the rimonim were sold and left the American Jewish community forever.
Shearith Israel’s lawsuit says the rimonim at Newport are not even a proper pair because one of the bells “is incontrovertibly owned by Shearith Israel.”
Solomon said that at some point in the rimonim’s history, probably during the 19th century, they became confused with another pair of Myer Myers rimonim held by Shearith Israel in New York. Solomon said that one of the rimonim in Newport is slightly taller than the other and that one of the bells has striations on the leaves and the other has flutes on the stem. One of the bells says “Newport” on the bottom, while the other bell does not.
The current lawsuit began when Jeshuat Israel sued Shearith Israel in Rhode Island in 2012.
The 130-member Newport congregation seeks a ruling that would establish that Jeshuat Israel owns the rimonim. The case is complicated by the fact that the original congregation that built and prayed at Touro Synagogue disappeared 200 years ago.
Newport was one of the original colonial Jewish congregations, settled by Sephardic Jews whose families originated in Spain and Portugal.
During the 1700s, the congregation, known as Yeshuat Israel, raised funds to establish its own Jewish cemetery and a synagogue, which it built atop a hill in the center of town, looking out toward the harbor. Famed colonial architect Peter Harrison designed the synagogue, and the cemetery was immortalized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Newport’s defining moment came in 1790, when President Washington visited the town.
Yeshuat Israel’s president, Moses Seixas, presented a letter to Washington seeking the recently elected president’s assurance that Jews would enjoy religious liberty in the fledgling United States of America. Washington’s reply, which leaned heavily upon Seixas’s own language, assured the Jews of Newport that America’s government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” The letter is widely regarded as Washington’s most important treatise on religious liberty and one of the most important documents in American Jewish history.
But Washington’s visit came at a time when Newport and its Jewish community were in decline. The town’s commerce was hit badly during the Revolutionary War when the harbor was blockaded by the British. By the early 1820s, the last Jews had left town. The keys and deed to the synagogue, along with its ritual objects, were given in trust to Shearith Israel.
Shearith Israel was founded in 1654, also by Sephardic Jews. In its court papers, Shearith Israel says that many of the Jews who left Newport in the early 19th century joined their brethren in the New York congregation. For much of the 19th century, Touro Synagogue was shuttered, until an influx of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe reawakened Jewish life in the town in the 1880s.
That new wave of Jews gave birth to Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which was formed toward the end of the 19th century.
In its court papers, Jeshuat Israel concedes that Touro Synagogue and its related real estate were indeed placed with Shearith Israel in trust for “the Jewish society of Newport.”
But Jeshuat Israel argues that its community represents the continuation of Yeshuat Israel and that Shearith Israel’s ownership of Touro Synagogue does not extend to all the objects inside the synagogue.
Jeshuat Israel’s lawyers say that since the congregation has controlled the rimonim for more than 100 years it leads to a “strong presumption of ownership.”
They also claim that by blocking the sale of the rimonim, Shearith Israel is not acting in the best interests of the Newport community and so Shearith Israel should be removed as a trustee.
Judge John J. McConnell Jr., who will preside over this bench trial during the first few weeks of June, won’t be the first judge asked to decide who controls Touro Synagogue.
During the early 1900s there were skirmishes between Jeshuat Israel and another congregation in Newport over who had permission to pray in the synagogue.
In 1903, a Rhode Island federal court ruled that Shearith Israel was the synagogue’s rightful owner. In 1903, the two Newport congregations merged and signed a lease in which Jeshuat Israel agreed to pay a $1 a year to Shearith Israel. The New York congregation says Jeshuat Israel has paid that annual $1 most years up to 2012.
The New York congregation says that today it is not a trustee of Touro Synagogue; it’s a “benevolent landlord” whose lessee “has run amok.”
Gary Naftalis, an attorney for Congregation Jeshuat Israel, declined to speak on the record to the Forward. Shearith Israel’s lawsuit claims that leaders of Jeshuat Israel began trying to secretly sell the rimonim eight years ago.
Solomon told the Forward, “This is not about evicting the congregation; the congregation is going nowhere.” But, he added, neither are the rimonim.
Contact Paul Berger at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @pdberger
This story "Synagogues Fight Over for Whom the Bells Toll" was written by Paul Berger.