Advantage Shearith Israel, in the ongoing court battles between the oldest congregation in NY City and America, and Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest synagogue building in America. The 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on Wednesday recognized the ownership of the former over the latter, which includes rare Torah scroll silver pomegranates worth $7.4 million.
The Boston court overruled the May 2016 decision of Federal Judge John J. McConnell Jr. of the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, in favor of congregation residing in the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. The Boston court ruled that the NY congregation owns both the synagogue building as well as all the historical Jewish ritual objects within.
The $7.4 million dispute between two of America’s oldest Jewish congregations erupted in 2011, when the Newport Touro synagogue congregation, known as Jeshuat Israel (Heb: salvation of Israel), offered to sell the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston two silver Torah ornaments called “rimonim” (Heb: pomegranates) for $7.4 million. But the ornaments, like the rest of the synagogue, were the property of Congregation Shearith Israel, currently residing on West 70th Street in New York, and they were not amused when they heard of the sale.
Shearith Israel trustee Michael Katz testified that “we were aghast that they were doing this without informing us in advance. We considered it a violation of the lease. We considered it a violation of trust, and it upset us very, very much.”
Back in the early 1900s, the NY congregation leased the Touro building to a newcomer Jewish congregation in Newport for $1 a year (which, in today’s value, comes to $1.87). They didn’t believe this generous lease empowered the tenants to sell off parts of the synagogue.
Bea Ross, of the Newport congregation, testified that she had informed Katz of the sale, but not directly. In 2009, there was a Forward article about the sale of the rimonim, and she and Katz talked about it over the phone. Apparently, that call didn’t leave as much of an impression on Katz.
Members of the Newport congregation told the court that the reason they had to sell the ornaments—which were made by Jewish American Silversmith Myer Myers (1723-1795)—was that their numbers were starting to dwindle and they could no longer afford to pay a rabbi.
Rabbi Marc Mandel, formerly the associate rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, Ca. has been the Jeshuat Israel spiritual leader since 2011.
Incidentally, the reason the NY congregation has owned the Newport synagogue in the first place had to do with the declining numbers of Newport’s Jews in the late 18th century, when Shearith Israel took over the building and remained its caretaker as it stood empty for almost a hundred years.
Katz told the court that his congregation saw itself as strictly the landlord of the Newport synagogue, and not responsible for its financial problems (they had come asking for help).
On the face of it, the case looked like it should have gone to the New York congregation, but the local paper, Times Argus, reported prior to the trial that the state of Rhode Island was monitoring the case and planned to intervene with the judge to make sure “justice would be done.” Now the ruling has cleared the way for Jeshuat Israel to sell the rimonim, valued at $7.4 million—there are 130 members left in the congregation, so “justice” in this case could net them $57,000 each, before court costs. Or it could pay the rabbi’s salary and maintenance.
“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,” Judge McConnell wrote in a 106-page decision, disregarding the fact that said legacy had been interrupted for as long as a century, and that what he facilitated was the removing of $7.4 million from the possession of a New York congregation, its legal owner, and handing it over to a local group that couldn’t pay its own way.
Saying they were the trustees, not the owners, Judge McConnell chastised Shearith Israel for claiming ownership and removed it as Touro’s trustee, awarding everything to the local Jeshuat Israel. Justice was done. Rhode Island style.