State to play Solomon in tussle over US’s oldest synagogue

Court green-lights Rhode Island to intervene in dispute between congregations over who owns Touro Synagogue’s bells

Newport's Touro Synagogue (photo credit: Courtesy)
Newport's Touro Synagogue (photo credit: Courtesy)

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — A federal judge has allowed the state of Rhode Island to intervene in a fight over the future of the United States’ oldest synagogue.

The lawsuit, due for trial next month, pits the nation’s first Jewish congregation in New York City against the congregation that worships at the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.

The fight began when leaders of Newport’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel agreed to sell ceremonial bells, called rimonim, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $7.4 million.

Leaders of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel sued in 2012, saying it owns the Rhode Island synagogue and bells. They also want to evict the Newport congregation from Touro, which is a National Historic Site that attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year.

The lawsuit is set to go to trial next month.

US District Judge John McConnell on Wednesday approved a request by the office of state Attorney General Peter Kilmartin to intervene.

The office has a role in overseeing charitable trusts and asked to be involved as a friend of the court. That means it would be able to be present at the trial and after evidence and testimony is concluded, it would then submit its position to the court.

Lawyers for both sides said Thursday that they welcomed the intervention. Both said multiple attempts at mediation have failed, and that they are preparing for trial.

Congregation Shearith Israel was established in 1654. It overlooks Central Park on New York City’s Upper West Side.

The Touro Synagogue was built in Newport by the nation’s second oldest Jewish congregation in 1763. Within a few decades of it being built, all the city’s Jewish residents had moved away, and many of the synagogue’s assets were transferred to the New York congregation.

The two sides disagree on whether the New York congregation owns Touro. The congregation that worships there says Shearith was only named as a trustee. The Newport congregation also dispute that ownership of the rimonim was transferred to New York.

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