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Monday, June 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Location, Location, Location in Scuffle Over Holy Objects

MANHATTAN (CN) - A Jewish congregation chose the wrong venue to fight for a $7.4 million bequest of colonial-era silver finial bells, a federal judge ruled.

Congregation Jeshuat Israel dedicated the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, R.I., in 1763, making it the oldest Jewish building standing in the United States, according to the ruling.

In June 2012, the congregation entered into an agreement to sell rimonim crafted by 18th century silversmith Myers Myers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Mass., for a now-closed exhibition titled "Jewish Life and Judaica in Colonial America."

Rimonim are silver finial bells that traditionally adorn the Torah during Jewish religious services.

The sale drew objections from the New York-based Congregation Shearith Israel, which calls itself the oldest Jewish congregation in North America. Its first synagogue predates the Touro, but there are no longer services there.

Both congregations identify as Orthodox Sephardic, meaning that they trace their origins to Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

U.S. District Judge Miriam Cederbaum wrote Friday that a schism in the late 19th century caused a rift between the congregations.

"The competition between the two congregations eventually led to litigation over Touro Synagogue," the nine-page opinion states. "In 1902, the matter was resolved, and CSI was found to own Touro Synagogue, as well as its real and personal property."

Congregation Shearith Israel later leased Touro to the Newport-based congregation for $1 per year.

On Nov. 8, 2012, Congregation Jeshuat Israel sued in Rhode Island state court for an injunction to let it sell the rimonim. That case was subsequently transferred to federal court.

Congregation Shearith Israel sued in Manhattan federal court a little more than a week later seeking a declaration that it is the true owner of the object.

But Judge Cederbaum ruled Friday that her court lacks jurisdiction under the "first-filed" rule.

Attorneys for both congregations did not immediately return requests for comment.

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