PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Rhode Island congregants who worship at the nation's oldest synagogue are reviewing their legal options after a federal appeals panel ruled the nation's oldest Jewish congregation in New York owns the building and a set of ceremonial bells worth millions.
A three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Congregation Shearith Israel on Wednesday. It found that under terms of an agreement from 1903, the New York congregation owns Newport's Touro Synagogue, which was dedicated in 1763 and is a national historic site.
"We are disappointed with the panel's ruling and are reviewing our legal options going forward. We remain committed to preserving Touro Synagogue, the nation's oldest synagogue, as a place of public worship for Jews, and Jeshuat Israel, the congregation that has prayed there for over a century," Gary Naftalis, who represents the Newport congregation, said Thursday.
The congregation could ask the panel to reconsider, or request a review by the full appeals court or U.S. Supreme Court. The decision was written by retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who occasionally sits in on cases in the 1st Circuit.
Lou Solomon, who represents the New York congregation and heads its board of trustees, said he looks forward to sitting down with the Rhode Island congregation and moving forward cooperatively.
"Two Jewish congregations should not be fighting with each other. It's most unfortunate, so I'm glad it's behind us," he said.
Touro Synagogue holds an important place in the history of the nation's commitment to religious liberty. In 1790, George Washington visited Touro, then sent its congregants a letter saying the government of the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
Congregation Shearith Israel became trustee of Touro after Jews left Newport in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The dispute began when the Newport congregation, struggling with money, came up with a plan to establish an endowment by selling a set of Colonial-era Torah bells called rimonim to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $7.4 million. The New York congregation objected, arguing the sale would violate religious law.
The two congregations have periodically struggled for control of the building over the centuries. The appeals panel found that an agreement forged amid one of those disagreements in 1903 established that Shearith Israel owned Touro and the paraphernalia inside, which the court found included the bells. It found Jeshuat Israel was merely a tenant.
"I think it's time to move forward in a cooperative and harmonious way, which is where we were before they tried to sell the rimonim in a surreptitious way," Solomon said. "But we value the relationship and hope that it will continue on the right footing."