The oldest synagogue in the United States, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island celebrated the building's 250th anniversary on Aug, 18, 2013. Earlier in the week, after eight months of negotiations America's two oldest Jewish congregations, Jeshuat Israel at Touro Synagogue and Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City concluded on Aug. 13, 2013 that they could not solve their dispute through mediation and will continue with their lawsuits. They have been engaged since last fall in a legal dispute, where both congregations filed dueling lawsuits over the ownership of Touro's set of Torah finials. Jesuat Israel wants to sell the finials to Boston's Museum of Fine Art for $7.4 million. The argument centers around who really owns the Touro synagogue building and its contents.
Both are orthdodox synagogues, praying in the Sephardic custom. Rabbi Dr. Marc Mandel heads the Jeshuat Israel Congregation at Touro Synogogue, while Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik nows heads Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. The Torah finials are decoration of silver bells placed on the Torah handles when they are not in use, and are supposed to ring when the scrolls are raised, being taken to read. The finials or rimonim in Hebrew, were made by Myer Myers, a silversmith in the 1760s or 1770s for the Touro synagogue building.
The conflict started in the summer of 2012, but both sides could not find a compromise. Shearith Israel was the first to file in court in Rhode Island and New York in Nov. 2012 and wanted the courts to reaffirm that they are the owners of the building and its contents. Jeshuat Israel's countersuit was also filed in Nov. 2012, and claims the New York congregation only became a trustee not the owner of their synagogue's building. They are requesting Shearith Israel be removed as a trustee from the board, and ownership of the building's possessions be confirmed as belonging to Jeshuat Israel. Determining ownership will conclude which party has the right to dispose of property from the Touro building. Jeshuat Israel has also asked Rhode Island's Attorney General Peter Kilmartin to intercede on their behalf.
The major point that has prevented any agreement is not only does Shearith Israel want to prevent the sale of the Torah finials; they want to revoke the $1-per-year lease that has been part of an agreement since 1903. Shearith Israel wants to kick the congregation out of the synagogue, citing Jeshuat Israel violated proper religious usage of the building in their attempt to sell the rimonim. The court documents stated; "“For over 100 years, Shearith Israel has owned the Touro Synagogue, including its land, building and religious objects. For over 100 years, these have been leased to Jeshuat Israel…. Jeshuat Israel should be removed as lessee of Touro Synagogue."
In recent years Jeshuat Israel has seen a decline in their membership; they now have around 140 active members, most are elderly, spending winters in the south; the congregation is at peril of disappearing. Unlike 1822, the first time the Newport Jewish community dispersed, this time if the congregation would cease existing it would be an embarrassment for the entire Rhode Island Jewish community. George Goodwin, who serves as the editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, the journal of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society lamented; "Touro is so special because it’s both a museum and a living congregation. So if it were to fail, it would be a horrible indictment of the organized Jewish community in Rhode Island, in New England and in America.”
The congregation at Touro wants to sell the rimonim to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to raise money for both the congregation and the building, to ensure they will always have a rabbi employed, to keep a congregation active.
A former President of Touro Synagogue, David Bazarsky stated; "Our goal is really to take the money, put it into a trust, and endowment fund, and secure the future while having the opportunity to display the finial bells. We think it's part of history, it's part of the culture of America, and it's overwhelmingly positive."
Needing the money, the Congregation, first contacted Christie's auction house to find someone willing to buy one of the Torah finials. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts showed an interest, the museum has been displaying the rimonim since 2010 in their permanent exhibit of early American art, and in 2011 they made their offer to purchase them for $7.4 million, more than the congregation hoped to get, which would ensured the synagogue would remain operational for many years.
Both sides cannot seem to reach an agreement, even though they do agree that instead of selling the rimonim, they can be leased long term to the fine arts museum.
Until the legal dispute is settled the Boston museum has rescinded their offer to purchase or even lease the finial bells. The original offer was set to expire regardless at the end of 2012, but would have been extended if not for the legal dispute. One Jeshuat Israel's legal team, Steven E. Snow told the press the museum's offer "is currently off the table," adding "That doesn't mean they might not inquire in the future."
The two sides had a settlement conference earlier this year on Jan. 3, 2013, where the judge determined the two sides should participate in mediation as a method for solving their problem, before continuing on with the lawsuits, a common course of actions in such lawsuits; it is an attempt to avoid a costly court battle. The mediation sessions were overseen by Judge William E. Smith.
At their Jan. 3 meeting U.S. District Court Judge Smith told the lawyers representing the two parties to avoid speaking to the press about the matter during their mediation meetings. Judge Smith set an April deadline to resolve the issue; still both sides could not come to any satisfactory agreement, and mediation dragged on until this August. Judge John J. McConnell Jr. now "lifted the stay," which required the parties to remain quiet on the case.
Both congregations have a long history, which tells so much of the early American Jewish experience. Shearith Israel was established in 1654 the same year the first Jews arrived in what would be America. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews created their congregation in what was then New Amsterdam, now New York, and although the congregation has changed buildings during the over 350 years since their establishment, they have continually remained a congregation. Since 1897 they are located in New York City's Upper West Side across from Central Park at 70th Street.
In 1658, four years later the Sephardic Jews of Newport, Rhode Island created their own congregation, in a colony known for religious tolerance. Nearly a hundred years later the congregation constructed the Touro Synagogue building, which is the oldest synagogue structure in the United States. Touro was designed by architect Peter Harrison; construction began in 1759 and was completed in 1763. The synagogue was dedicated during Hanukkah on Dec. 2, 1763, the first religious leader of the new synagogue was Cantor Isaac Touro.
The congregation gained preeminence and a place in American history when on Aug. 17, 1790 President George Washington visited Rhode Island at a time when the states where in the midst of ratifying the constitution. Washington responded first to a welcome letter written by synagogue president Moses Seixas. Washington promised the Newport Jewish community that the new country will ensure religious freedom and tolerance; "For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
Each year around Aug. 17, the synagogue holds a reading of Washington's letter to remember and honor the occasion. This year, on Aug. 18, 2013, Touro synagogue celebrated not only their annual Washington letter reading, but their 250th anniversary, with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan giving the keynote address.
However, only 60 years after the synagogue was built the Jewish population had left Newport, Rhode Island after the War of 1812 and the economy worsened, the last Jew leaving in 1822. No longer with a Jewish community, Shearith Israel legally took over taking care of the synagogue building that soon went into disrepair, and took possession of the Torah scrolls. The two congregation had been linked with some of the leading families from the two congregations related. Both of Issac Touro's sons Abraham and Judah bequeathed money to the state to maintain the building, the synagogue derives its name from Abraham Touro.
Towards the end of the century in 1881, a Jewish community again formed in Newport mostly of East European immigrants that started coming to the U.S. and summer vacationers, who visited Newport during the summer months with many staying through the high holidays in September, the synagogue reopened their doors. In 1897, the new Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities in Newport vied for control of the synagogue building, leading to a conflict and court case between both groups. In 1903, Shearith Israel determined that both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic would merge, praying in the Sephardic tradition.
The heart of the dispute is a nineteenth century agreement determining whether during the time there were no Jews in Newport, Shearith Israel became the building's trustee or its owner. It is a familiar argument, one the congregations encountered over 100 years ago when Jeshuat Israel was reestablishing itself. Making this the second time the two congregations have battled in court over the Touro building. In 1903, Rhode Island's federal court decided the Shearith Israel owned the synagogue, and that Jeshuat Israel pay a $1-a-year lease to use the building, still the congregation at Touro continued to refer to Shearith Israel as only a trustee. The lease was last renewed in 1908.
Shearith Israel's involvement in any aspect of Touro synagogue “has only been occasional and sporadic,” since 1946 when the synagogue was designated a National Historic Site. In 1966 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, they opened a visitor's center that cost $14-million to be built. Although the synagogue actively used; it remains a major tourist attraction.
It seems a ridiculous argument "synagogue vs. synagogue" both orthodox battling in court, one hoping to shut the other down, just because one has been looking for solution to remain open, rather than help their co-religionists find an alternative to keep their synagogue operational for the future. This argument occurs at a time when anti-Semitism seems again to be on the rise, and there are worries of intermarriage, disinterest and other factors threatening American Jewry's future in upcoming generations. Jewish communities should be uniting to work together to keep synagogues and congregations operating rather than asserting a power play, resorting to spitefully looking to close them down.
In this month of Elul, time of seeking forgiveness before Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, these synagogues, the oldest congregations in America should act as examples and find a solution that would benefit both sides, rather than show the country and the world that synagogues even resort to hatred to one another sending a message that could possibly in the future fuel more anti-Semitism.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.