Oldest U.S. Synagogue In Newport, Rhode Island, Is At The Center Of A Potential Supreme Court Battle

Stephan SavoiaAP Images

The United States Supreme Court is about to hear a case to determine the ownership of the oldest synagogue in America, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. The case has been heard by lower courts because two separate temples are claiming ownership of the historic building in New England.

Jewish Week broke the case down involving Congregation Jeshuat Israel and New York’s Shearith Israel, and each of their efforts to gain control of the landmark building.

Congregation Jeshuat Israel was named the tenant of the building, but the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Shearith Israel in New York (founded in 1654) is the rightful owner. Neither party is willing to step down in the challenge for ownership of the temple.

Gary Naftalis, the lawyer for Jeshuat Israel, says they will appeal the decision which gives New York’s Shearith Israel not only ownership of the building in Newport but also of the congregation’s possessions, including their Torah and other religious relics.

“We will seek review by the United States Supreme Court to continue our fight to preserve the Touro Synagogue.”

Naftalis adds that Jeshuat Israel is the only congregation that has ever worshipped at the Touro Synagogue.

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But on the other side, Louis Solomon is speaking for Shearith Israel (he is also their chairman and attorney, as well as a member of the congregation) saying that the court has come down on the correct side.

“Court’s decision reaffirms the need, for the good of American Jewry and people of faith everywhere, to put this divisive matter behind us.”

The relationship between the two congregations dates back to the Revolutionary War, and for generations, the communications were warm and conciliatory. During the war when Rhode Island Jews had to flee, Shearith Israel in New York (the oldest congregation in America) became a relatively safe haven and a trustee for the Newport shul, protecting its members and religious relics.

This current legal conflict dates back to 2012 when Jeshuat Israel was having financial troubles and made the decision to sell religious artifacts that belonged to the temple in order to pay and maintain a head rabbi. When the proposed sale of the items (worth millions) got out, the New York temple filed to assert its trustee status of the synagogue and its artifacts to block the sale.

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Initially, a judge in Providence, Rhode Island, ruled in favor of the Newport congregation, but the New York synagogue appealed. The item for sale which sparked this case is a pair of Colonial-era silver Torah scroll finials that were handcrafted by a noted silversmith. They are said to be valued at $7 million, which would obviously help secure the congregation’s future.

In 1946, the Touro Synagogue was named a national historic site. The big annual event is the reading of the George Washington letter each summer to commemorate a visit by the first president in 1790. In his letter, Washington said that “[The government] gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”