PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A lawyer for congregants at the oldest synagogue in the United States said they want to take their fight for ownership of the Rhode Island synagogue to the U.S. Supreme Court, after an appeals court let stand a decision giving control of it to a New York congregation.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday declined to grant congregants at Newport's Touro Synagogue a rehearing in a long-running and bitter struggle over who owns and controls Touro and a set of ceremonial bells valued at $7.4 million.
Gary Naftalis, who represents the Newport worshippers, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, said they were disappointed by the decision granting ownership to Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan.
"We will seek review by the United States Supreme Court to continue our fight to preserve the Touro Synagogue and the rights of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, the only congregation that has prayed there for over a century," he said in an email.
Congregation Shearith Israel is the nation's oldest Jewish congregation. Lou Solomon, its lawyer and the head of its board, said it was pleased by the court decision.
"The court's decision reaffirms the need, for the good of American Jewry and people of faith everywhere, to put this divisive matter behind us," he wrote in an email Thursday.
A three-judge panel ruled unanimously in favor of Shearith Israel last year, finding that the New York congregation owns Touro under terms of an agreement from 1903. It found the Newport worshippers were merely tenants.
Jeshuat Israel had asked the full court for a rehearing, saying the decision involved its continued vitality. It argued that the decision raised important constitutional issues and ran contrary to Rhode Island law.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin supported the request for a rehearing, writing that the litigation is of "exceptional importance" to the people of Rhode Island and the nation.
Circuit court Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson dissented from the appeals court's decision not to rehear the case. Among her concerns was that the decision deviates from longstanding Rhode Island law concerning charitable trusts and other issues.
Jeshuat Israel has 90 days to file an appeal.
Touro Synagogue was established in 1763 and played an important role in the history of religious liberty in America. George Washington visited it in 1790 and later sent a letter to its congregants saying the government of the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
But after Jews left Newport in the early 19th century, Shearith Israel was named trustee of Touro. In the late 19th century, Jews returned to the city and resumed worshipping there.
The lawsuit began when the Newport congregation, which has struggled with money, came up with a plan to sell one of its two sets 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.