Judge: Congregation at oldest US synagogue can stay, for now
The Rhode Island congregants who worship at the nation’s oldest synagogue won’t be evicted, as a judge ruled in their favor Monday. But the yearslong legal dispute over the historic building appears far from over.
Newport-based Congregation Jeshuat Israel is the current tenant at the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue. It’s owned by New York-based Congregation Shearith Israel, which filed a motion in state District Court in February to take control of the board that oversees day-to-day operations.
Judge Colleen Hastings in Newport District Court on Monday dismissed Congregation Shearith Israel’s motion.
The New York congregation denied trying to evict the Rhode Island congregation, saying the motion was an effort to take control of the board that oversees day-to-day operations of the synagogue.
Louis Solomon, president of Congregation Shearith Israel, said in an email that the motion was dismissed on a technicality — and the legal case will proceed.
“Shearith Israel is committed to regime change of the corporate lessee of Touro Synagogue,” Solomon said, adding that the congregation “is fully committed to pursuing all legal efforts to change control over the Board.”
Louise Teitz, co-president of the Newport congregation, called the eviction attempt “meritless.”
“We hope that our New York landlord will now choose to finalize the terms for a longterm lease for Jeshuat Israel that will provide certainty and stability for our congregation going forward,” she said in a statement.
Touro Synagogue was consecrated in 1763, but the Jewish community that founded it eventually dispersed and Congregation Shearith Israel became trustees.
The current congregation has been worshipping at the site since 1883 and leases it for $1 a year, per a 1903 agreement.
Disputes between the congregations began in 2011 when the Newport congregation moved to sell a set of ritual bells to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $7.4 million. Congregation Shearith Israel sued, citing the trustees agreement.
A trial judge initially awarded control of the property and the bells to the Newport congregation, but in 2017 the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 declined to intervene in the case.
Touro Synagogue holds an important place in the history of the nation’s commitment to religious freedom. In 1790, George Washington visited Touro, and sent a letter to the congregation pledging America’s commitment to religious liberty, writing that the young nation “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
This story was first published Aug. 29, 2022. It was updated Aug. 30, 2022, to correct that a motion filed by Congregation Shearith Israel was made in state District Court to evict Jeshuat Israel; it was not filed in state Superior Court to take control of the board, though Shearith Isreal says that was the motion’s intent. Additionally, the story should have made clear that a lawsuit involving the proposed sale of ritual bells was separate from the eviction case.