Judge Ends Fight Over Oldest U.S. Synagogue

     PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CN) — The congregation that has worshiped at the nation’s oldest synagogue for over a century is the rightful owner of the temple and its priceless ritual objects, a federal judge ruled Monday.
     The decision ended a hostile four-year dispute that erupted between the Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which gathers at the 253-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., and the nation’s oldest Jewish congregation and Touro trustee, Congregation Shearith Israel of New York.
     Shearith Israel claimed to be the lawful owner of the synagogue and its possessions after it learned of Jeshuat Israel’s plan to sell a pair of 250-year-old rimonim, or torah bells, to the Boston Museum of Fine Art for $7.4 million in an effort to keep the temple doors open to the public amid a severe financial crisis.
     A 2012 lawsuit filed by Jeshuat Israel saw both parties claiming authority over the culture’s tangible history.
     By the time the action culminated in a 2015 trial, each congregation also sought to completely remove the other from its association to the property.
     In a 106-page opinion awarding Jeshuat Israel total control of the synagogue, U.S. District Judge John McConnell Jr. ruled Monday that Shearith Israel had overstayed its welcome.
     He says the academic belief that Shearith never owned Touro or the rimonim is a “settled historical opinion.”
     In fact, Shearith Israel was only appointed trustee after Touro needed safekeeping when all the Jews left Newport during the revolution, and once Jeshuat Israel assumed all responsibility for the property by the late 20th Century, the authority to control it came with that responsibility, according to the complaint.
     “Over 110 years after last exercising power to appoint trustees, over 70 years after its power was restricted, and over 30 years after its power was rejected, Shearith Israel is now too late to challenge Jeshuat Israel’s governance,” McConnell wrote.
     Nevertheless, it was not Shearith Israel’s domineering approach to the power struggle that eventually made it an unbecoming trustee, according to the ruling.
     McConnell said his decision to remove Shearith Israel as Touro’s trustee, replacing it with the temple’s long-standing Jeshuat Israel, is grounded in the concept of Touro being held in a trust to benefit the public.
     In the thorough opinion that details the history of Touro’s original trustees before they even arrived in America seeking religious freedom in the 18th Century, McConnell said that, “The central issue here is the legacy of some of the earliest Jewish settlers in North America, who desired to make Newport a permanent haven for public Jewish worship.”
     
     “Shearith Israel denies the existence of a trust and attempts to evict Jeshuat Israel from Touro Synagogue. These actions, and the friction they have engendered, hinder and undermine the charitable trust, requiring removal of Shearith Israel as trustee,” the judge wrote.
     Shearith Israel’s intention to put Jeshuat Israel out on the streets “would undermine the very reason for the trust’s existence — public Jewish worship in Newport,” the ruling states.
     “No breach of trust is more egregious than when a trustee claims to own the trust property outright and refuses to admit the trust’s very existence,” McConnell wrote.
     The judge says his decision to make the present caretaker of Touro, Jeshuat Israel, the new trustee “only recognizes in law that which is already obvious in fact.”
     The rimonim at the center of the feud were made for Touro by the Jewish colonial silversmith Myer Myers, who was also president of Shearith Israel at the time and facilitated the building of the temple and support of its congregation, according to the ruling.
     The bells are currently on loan to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for exhibition since 2010.

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