US Supreme Court declines to take up fight over America’s oldest synagogue
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US Supreme Court declines to take up fight over America’s oldest synagogue

Manhattan’s Shearith Israel declared rightful owner of Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue after ownership dispute stemming from the Revolutionary War

Touro Synagogue, nestled in historic Newport, Rhode Island, is the oldest extant synagogue in the United States, seen on September 2, 2004. (John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images/via JTA)
Touro Synagogue, nestled in historic Newport, Rhode Island, is the oldest extant synagogue in the United States, seen on September 2, 2004. (John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images/via JTA)

The US Supreme Court is declining to intervene in a fight between two Jewish communities over control of a historic Rhode Island synagogue and its Torah scroll adornments worth millions.

The justices’ decision Monday not to take up the case means that a lower court ruling that a New York synagogue owns Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, remains in force.

Congregation Jeshuat Israel has worshiped at Touro Synagogue since the late 1800s. It wanted control of the synagogue building, which was built in 1763, and the ability to sell one of its two sets of Colonial-era silver Torah scroll bell-shaped finials, called rimonim, handcrafted by prominent silversmith Myer Myers. It wanted to sell the set to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $7.4 million.

But in June, the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals, in a ruling written by former US Supreme Court justice David Souter, found that Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, which objected to Jeshuat Israel’s planned sale of the rimonim, owns both the Touro property and the adornments.

A view inside the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. (Wikimedia Commons via JTA)

The dispute between Jeshuat Israel and Shearith Israel, the nation’s oldest congregation founded in 1654, has gone on for years.

The two congregations have had a close, centuries-old intertwined relationship. During the Revolutionary War, when Newport’s Jews fled the city, Shearith Israel became the trustee of Touro and for a time held its possessions. Later, with a wave of new Jewish immigrants, the congregation rechartered.

The current legal dispute dates back to 2012, when Jeshuat Israel, seeking to secure its financial footing and maintain a rabbi, planned to sell artifacts worth millions of dollars. Shearith Israel moved to block the sale, arguing in part that it is the rightful owner of the Touro Synagogue and its possessions.

Two years ago, a US District Court judge in Providence ruled in favor of Jeshuat Israel and removed Shearith Israel as a trustee. Shearith Israel appealed and won the decision in August, with Souter finding that Jeshuat Israel was a tenant.

The Myers rimonim at the center of the Touro synagogue dispute. (Courtesy: Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

Last year’s circuit court ruling featured a dissent by Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson in which she expressed concern that the decision did not consider long-standing Rhode Island law on charitable trusts that “could lead to different legal conclusions.”

Designated a national historic site in 1946, the Touro Synagogue attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, including for its annual summertime reading of a historic letter from George Washington, who visited the synagogue in 1790. The nation’s first president wrote to the Newport Jewish community that year that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

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