New York congregation owns oldest U.S.
synagogue, court rules
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[August 03, 2017]
By Chris Kenning
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on
Wednesday ruled that a New York Jewish congregation is the rightful
owner of the nation's oldest synagogue, in Rhode Island, along with a
set of bells worth millions.
The decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston marks the
latest turn in a long-running legal battle that began when members of
the Touro Synagogue in Newport tried to sell a set of ritual bells,
called rimonim, worth some $7.4 million.
New York's Congregation Shearith Israel attempted to block the deal,
citing an 18th century agreement that named it a trustee.
A lower court last year placed ownership of the synagogue with the Rhode
Island congregation that worships there, Newport's Congregation Jeshuat
Israel. The appeals court reversed that decision citing previous
"We hold that the only reasonable conclusions to be drawn from them are
that CSI (Congregation Shearith Israel) owns both the rimonim and the
real property," the ruling said.
Louis Solomon, an attorney for Shearith Israel, said in a statement he
was gratified by the ruling.
"We will continue in our historic role and look forward to putting this
unfortunate litigation behind us," he said.
Gary Naftalis, a lawyer for the Rhode Island congregation, said he was
disappointed by the ruling and was exploring legal options.
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The historic building was consecrated in 1763, when the town had one
of the largest Jewish populations in the American colonies,
including many who had fled the Spanish Inquisition. It was vacated
in 1776 when most of the city's Jewish population fled at the start
of the Revolutionary War.
Members of the synagogue at that time shipped a pair of valuable
silver bells used in rituals to the New York synagogue, and asked
its leaders to act as trustees for the vacant temple. Worshippers
returned by the 1870s and the New York group's influence waned.
Shearith sued Newport's Congregation Jeshuat Israel when it learned
the Rhode Island group had reached a deal to sell the bells to
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The Touro congregation had planned to
use the funds to create a reserve to pay for maintenance of the
building, after its finances were hard hit by the 2008 credit
The New York congregation also claimed ownership of the bells and
charged that the Newport group was violating Jewish tradition by
selling ritual objects.
(Reporting by Chris Kenning; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Cynthia
Osterman and Michael Perry)
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