PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A fight over control of the nation’s oldest synagogue went to trial Monday, with the congregation that worships there arguing its very existence is at stake and the other arguing the congregation has lost its way and has gone “beyond the pale.”
The disagreement began over the proposed sale of ceremonial bells for $7.4 million and has become a bitter dispute over who is in charge of the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport. On one side is Congregation Jeshaut Israel, the congregation that has worshipped at Touro since the late 1800s. On the other is New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, the nation’s first Jewish congregation, which owns Touro.
As trial began in a packed courtroom in U.S. District Court in Providence, Judge John McConnell noted that the court is resolving a civil, not religious, dispute.
“To do otherwise, in this court’s opinion, would violate the First Amendment,” he said.
Monday’s proceedings touched on documents stretching back hundreds of years, including a 1790 letter George Washington wrote to the Jewish community in Newport that is considered an important pledge of the new nation’s commitment to religious liberty. The letter is read annually at Touro, and in recent years, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan have given the keynote address during the ceremony.
“It has stood as a beacon of religious freedom and tolerance in this country and the state of Rhode Island since it was dedicated in 1763,” the Newport congregation’s lawyer, Gary Naftalis, said during opening statements.
The Newport congregation says it is in financial straits and wants to sell the bells, called rimonim (pronounced rih-moh-NEEM’), to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It hopes to use the money to create an endowment.
After the deal was announced in 2012, the New York congregation objected. It now says it owns them and says any sale is akin to selling a “birthright.”
Jews left Newport after the Revolutionary War and didn’t return until the late 1800s. During that time, items from Touro were transferred to Shearith Israel. After Jews returned to Newport, the items were returned.
Lou Solomon, Shearith Israel’s lawyer, told the judge that the Newport congregation simply leases the building and everything inside.
“We will show they own nothing,” Solomon said. “They had nothing when they came into existence in 1893. They were the last to the party. … They have nothing now.”
Solomon said that selling the rimonim to a museum turns them into relics that will no longer be used in religious services and that New York wants to protect the bells and the synagogue for a broader constituency than just the members of Congregation Jeshaut Israel.
The Newport congregation says the New York congregation owns the synagogue only in trust and for the benefit of the Jews of Newport, which it embodies. It says New York didn’t claim ownership of the rimonim until recently and has had little if anything to do with operations at Touro for decades.
The New York congregation has said it is seeking the eviction of Congregation Jeshuat Israel from Touro, though it has said it doesn’t seek to evict any congregant but rather the congregation’s leadership. Naftalis said that could still include 25 percent of the congregation and argued that such a move would be devastating.
“It would be the destruction of the congregation,” David Bazarsky, a former president of Touro and a current member of the board, testified. “If they were evicted, it would become a museum because there wouldn’t be anybody to worship there.”
The bench trial is expected to last around two weeks. The judge will issue a ruling later.