NEWPORT, R.I. — A bitter struggle for control over the nation’s oldest synagogue goes to trial this week, with lawyers saying they may use more than 1,000 exhibits dating as far back as 1733.
The congregation that worships at the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport says its very existence is at stake. The congregation that owns it accuses the Newport congregation of lawlessness for agreeing to sell a pair of ceremonial bells valued at more than $7 million.
The lawsuit and countersuit, brought by the nation’s first Jewish congregation, are being heard in a bench trial beginning Monday in U.S. District Court in Providence and rely on centuries of history.
Dedicated in 1763, the Touro Synagogue sits on a hill in this seaside town of Colonial homes and cobblestone streets. It is a National Historic Site and has been visited by three presidents: George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
In 1790, the congregation received a letter from Washington in which he wrote that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” The letter, sent before the Bill of Rights was ratified, is held up as an affirmation of the fledgling government’s commitment to religious liberty.
In the years that followed, Jews left the city, and the synagogue closed. Touro’s contents were transferred to the nation’s oldest Jewish congregation in New York, Congregation Shearith Israel, established in 1654.
In the late 1800s, Jews re-established themselves in Newport and began worshipping there again. Congregation Shearith Israel sent the items back, including two pairs of rimonim (pronounced rih-moh-NEEM’), bells placed on the handles of a Torah scroll. They were made by Myer Myers, among the premier silversmiths of the Colonial era.
Around the turn of the century, there was a lawsuit and struggle for control of Touro. In settling it, the congregation that worships there, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, ultimately signed a lease in 1903 to rent Touro from Congregation Shearith Israel for $1 per year.
The Newport congregation acknowledges in its lawsuit that the New York congregation owns Touro, but argues it holds it in trust for the Newport congregation’s benefit. It wants them removed as a trustee. It also says that it owns the rimonim outright.
The Newport congregation says it decided to sell reluctantly, and only because the congregation, which has around 100 families, needs the money. Although tens of thousands of visitors come through its doors every year, it says it barely has the money to pay for its expenses. It has tried and failed to raise the money for an endowment, it said.
“Jeshuat Israel is just one unforeseen expense away from financial disaster,” its lawyers wrote in a pretrial filing.
It says it chose to sell to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston because thousands of people would be able to see them. The museum offered $7.4 million for the bells in 2011. That offer was rescinded amid the ownership dispute.
The Newport congregation says that before the New York congregation “came out of the woodwork” to claim it owned the bells, it had abandoned Touro. It says the last time the New York congregation provided any financial help was likely in 1983, when it gave $100. Before that, it says, the last time was the 1960s.
But Congregation Shearith Israel, which overlooks Central Park on New York City’s Upper West Side, says that it is not the trustee of Touro, but rather a “benevolent landlord” that has overseen the property for nearly 200 years, since long before a “new” group of Jews came to Newport and began worshipping at Touro. It says any financial problems there are the result of poor management.
It also says it owns the bells and accuses the Newport congregation of trying to steal the bells and then sell them secretly.
Its lawsuit says it wants to evict Congregation Jeshuat Israel from Touro. In a pretrial filing, it told the judge it does not want to eject any congregant, but rather wants to replace its leadership.
To sell the rimonim would be to “sell a piece of Newport’s history to further its narrow self-interests,” it says.
“Shearith Israel wants future generations of worshippers to be able to experience these historic treasures and the fullness of Touro Synagogue’s rich history,” its lawyers wrote.
The trial is expected to last two weeks, but the judge will issue a decision later. The state of Rhode Island, which intervened in the case, will weigh in with the judge after the trial concludes.