Congregation ‘evicted’ from America’s oldest synagogue

According to a 1903 agreement, members of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island are merely ‘tenants.’

By World Israel News Staff and AP

As part of a long-running dispute, New York City-based Congregation Shearith Israel has filed a motion in state Superior Court to repossess Newport, Rhode Island-based Touro Synagogue and eject the local Jeshuat Israel congregation.

The long-running dispute made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019, which refused to intervene, basing its decision on a 1903 agreement. This meant that control of the synagogue remained in the Manhattan congregation’s hand.

According to the 1903 agreement, the Newport congregation members are merely tenants. While Jeshuat Israel has worshipped at Touro since the late 1800s, Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, the nation’s oldest Jewish congregation, became trustee of Touro after Jews left Newport in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Dispute over ownership of the synagogue began when Jeshuat Israel planned to sell a set of Colonial-era bells, known as ‘Rimonim’ and valued at $7.4 million, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Shearith has since fought the plan to sell the bells.

Louis M. Solomon, president of the board of trustees of Congregation Shearith Israel and lawyer for the group, said that the term ‘eviction’ is being taken out of context.

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“We don’t want anyone to leave… I want it to remain a vibrant and living congregation. I can’t do this with people who aren’t going to be straight with me,” Solomon said.

“No congregants are being evicted. None will be, ever,” Solomon said. “Shearith Israel also hopes the current Rabbi of Touro will consider staying, as he is very welcome.”

Jeshuat Israel apparently sees the situation differently.

“We are shocked that Shearith Israel seeks to expel Rhode Island’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel from the historic Touro Synagogue,” Louise Ellen Teitz, co-president of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, wrote in a statement last week.

“At a time of unprecedented attacks on American Jewry, we are devastated that our congregation has become the target of a shameful power grab by another Jewish congregation that over the years has not provided us or Touro any meaningful support at all,” she said.

Members of Jeshuat Israel said in a statement that they are willing to take responsibility for maintaining the building and orthodox services, as they have been “sole caretakers for almost 140 years.”

Solomon said that disagreement over ownership of the synagogue is with only a few members of Jeshuat Israel’s board, adding that his congregation wishes only to “restructure the group overseeing day-to-day activities of Touro Synagogue to restore trust and confidence that has historically existed, for close to 200 years, between Shearith Israel and Touro Synagogue.”

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Touro Synagogue was dedicated in 1763 and is a national historic site.

The synagogue was visited by George Washington in 1790, and he later sent its congregants a letter declaring that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”