Congregation facing eviction from nation’s oldest synagogue

Feb 1, 2022, 5:06 PM | Updated: 6:59 pm

A Jewish congregation in New York City has moved to evict Rhode Island congregants who worship at the nation’s oldest synagogue as part of a long-running dispute over control of the historic building.

The New York-based Congregation Shearith Israel on Monday filed a motion in state Superior Court to take control of Touro Synagogue by removing its current tenants — the Newport-based Congregation Jeshuat Israel.

Congregation Shearith Israel said in court documents that it sent a notice in October demanding that Congregation Jeshuat Israel leave the premises as of Monday.

“CJI, and any others still in possession of the premises, must vacate the premises as of midnight on the termination date,” Shearith Israel wrote.

Members of Congregation Jeshuat Israel released a statement Friday saying their goal was to have a long-term lease so the congregation could have the security of knowing they and future generations can continue to worship in the synagogue.

They said they are willing to take full responsibility for maintaining the building and maintaining orthodox services, with the hope of expanding the congregation.

“Touro Synagogue is our home, and the place where we have worshipped and been the sole caretakers, for almost 140 years,” members of the congregation wrote.

Louis Solomon, president of Congregation Shearith Israel said the congregation is seeking to change the board overseeing the day-to-day activities at Touro Synagogue, but doesn’t want to bar members of Congregation Jeshuat Israel.

“No congregants are being evicted. None will be, ever,” Solomon said. “Shearith Israel also hopes the current Rabbi of Touro will consider staying, as he is very welcome.”

Solomon said Congregation Shearith Israel is exercising rights granted it by the final court decision and that their disagreement is solely with a few members of the Congregation Jeshuat Israel Board.

The move is the latest action in a lengthy legal battle over the synagogue and a set of Colonial-era bells that has valued at $7.4 million.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in the fight over control of the synagogue and the bells. That decision left in place a ruling that the Rhode Island synagogue will remain the property of the New York congregation.

The Congregation Jeshuat Israel has worshipped at Touro since the late 1800s and had wanted the courts to declare that it owned the more than 250-year-old synagogue and the Torah bells, called rimonim. It had hoped to sell the bells to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as a way to shore up its finances.

Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, the nation’s oldest Jewish congregation, became trustee of Touro after Jews left Newport in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It had fought the plan to sell the bells.

A trial judge initially awarded control of the property and the bells to the Newport congregation, but the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals went the other way, giving them to the congregation from Manhattan.

Touro Synagogue was dedicated in 1763 and is a national historic site.

The synagogue was visited by George Washington in 1790, and he later sent its congregants a letter declaring that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” It attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually.

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Congregation facing eviction from nation’s oldest synagogue