J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Legal Realities of the Touro Synagogue

This month the U.S. Circuit Court in Boston decided which congregation owned the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and (the crux of the case) the eighteenth-century rimonim that silversmith Myer Myers made to adorn its Torah scrolls.

As reported by the New York Times and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the dispute has its roots in the British military occupation of Newport in 1776-1780 and the town’s economic straits during and after the war.

Many of the synagogue’s congregants moved to New York and joined Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the country. All those worshippers were Sephardic Jews from Iberia. Shearith Israel thus became the trustee of the largely abandoned synagogue building in Newport.

Over time, the Jewish population of the U.S. of A. grew with new immigration from eastern Europe. By the late 1800s there were enough of such Ashkenazi Jews in Newport to form a new congregation, Jeshuat Israel. The New Yorkers authorized Jeshuat Israel to use the Touro Synagogue and sent back the silver and gold rimonim. But there were also disputes between the groups; in 1901 the New Yorkers even locked the Newporters out of the synagogue. After a court case, the two congregations formalized their arrangement with a written lease in 1903.

In 2011, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts offered to buy the Touro Synagogue’s silver and gold rimonim. (The photo above shows them on display in the museum.) The appraised value was over $7 million, which would go a long way toward supporting a rabbi and a historic building. But which congregation had the power to approve that sale and use the proceeds?

A federal district court ruled that Shearith Israel was supposed to act as a trust securing the best interests of Jeshuat Israel. But the circuit court has now overturned that ruling. Writing for his colleagues, retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter relied heavily on the 1903 contract between the congregations. He said it shows Shearith Israel kept ownership of the building and its paraphernalia, merely renting them to Jeshuat Israel for a nominal $1 per year.

One interesting aspect of this case is the lack of historical documentation. That 1903 contract appears to be the first clear statement about the use of the Touro Synagogue since the American Revolution. The departure of Newport’s original Jewish community was gradual; we don’t really know when people left or died, or what they were thinking at the time. The care of the synagogue in the subsequent decades was privately arranged. And when new Jewish worshippers began to use the building regularly, that arrangement was first informal and gradually grew into a tradition.

No doubt because of the legal dispute, the Museum of Fine Arts rescinded its offer to buy the rimonim. Even now, the Circuit Court decision might not be the last word, leaving their eventual ownership still in doubt.

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