Newport congregation seeks new hearing in fight over Touro ornaments


A view inside the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I. (Wikimedia Commons)

(JTA) — The congregation that worships in America’s oldest synagogue building asked a federal court for a rehearing of the case that gave control of its pricey artifacts to the building’s historic trustees.

Lawyers for Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which meets in the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, said the court’s decision last month giving control of Touro to Manhattan’s Shearith Israel ignored state law and made constitutional errors.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston also gave the Manhattan synagogue ownership of $7.4 million silver Torah ornaments called rimonim that the Newport congregation had hoped to sell to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to build an endowment.

“In light of the panel’s errors, which significantly alter constitutional jurisprudence, and the importance of Touro, an American icon, this case strongly merits rehearing,” lawyers for Jeshuat Israel wrote in their filing with the court on Tuesday, The Associated Press reported.

The filing said the court’s ruling conflicts with past decisions on church property disputes and ignores state law, as well as findings by the Rhode Island state attorney general that the Touro Synagogue was held in trust for the benefit of the Newport Jewish community, according to AP.

“It’s unfortunate that, in the name of taking its last entitlement to due process, Congregation Jeshuat Israel reduced itself to misconstruing – indeed caricaturing — the thoughtful, well-reasoned, and unanimous opinion of a former Supreme Court justice and two esteemed Court of Appeals judges. Shearith Israel awaits Congregation Jeshuat Israel’s return to the business of caring for the Touro Synagogue rather than pursuing meritless litigation,” attorney Louis M. Solomon said in a statement.

Touro Synagogue was founded in the 18th century by a Sephardic Jewish community whose numbers declined over the years. Shearith Israel, a Sephardic congregation that was established in 1654 and has worshipped at various sites in Manhattan, has served as the trustee of Touro since the early 19th century.

Jeshuat Israel, which was founded in 1881 as Ashkenazi immigrants began flooding America from Eastern Europe, has worshipped at Touro for more than a century.

The current dispute began in 2012 when Jeshuat, which still holds regular services at Touro, attempted to sell the silver ornaments to establish an endowment to maintain a rabbi and care for the building, which was designated a national historic site in 1946.

The rimonim have been on loan from the Touro Synagogue to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which had made an offer to purchase them. The museum has since rescinded its offer.

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