America’s oldest congregation loses legal battle over historic synagogue

America’s oldest congregation loses legal battle over historic synagogue

Lawyers for the congregation in question, Shearith Israel are now considering an appeal over the decision

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

The interior of the Touro Synagogue
The interior of the Touro Synagogue

A  U.S. judge said the original intentions of North America’s first Jewish settlers guided his decision to award ownership of the nation’s oldest synagogue – and its pair of ceremonial bells valued at more than £5 million.

The ruling, made this week, followed a bitter legal battle between the country’s oldest Jewish congregation and the congregation that worships at its oldest shul, the 250-year old Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.

Lawyers for Shearith Israel in New York City, which claimed ownership of the synagogue, said they were considering whether to appeal, after U.S. District Judge Jack McConnell issued his 106-page findings.

“The central issue here is the legacy of some of the earliest Jewish settlers in North America, who desired to make Newport a permanent haven for public Jewish worship,” he said, following the nine-day trial last year, adding that the intention of the community that established the synagogue in 1763 guided his decision.

After the onset of the American War of Independence (1775-83), most of Newport’s Jewish residents left, many relocating to New York. By the 1820s, there were no Jews left in Newport, so Congregation Shearith Israel became Touro’s trustee, a role it continued.

Years later, as Jewish families slowly returned, Shearith sent items back, including two ceremonial bells (rimonim), made by renowned silversmith Myer Myers and now valued at $7.4 million. In recent years, however, Shearith sought to evict the Newport congregation.

Lawyers for Touro said: “The effort to evict the Rhode Island congregation has been thwarted, and an important piece of American history and of Jewish history has been preserved.”

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