Michael Rubinstein, Esq.
Who owns the Touro Synagogue? And more importantly, who is the rightful heir to Touro’s storied legacy of being the oldest shul in America? These were questions that a federal court answered last month after a lengthy trial between the Newport, Rhode Island congregation that calls the Touro Synagogue home, and Congregation Shearith Israel of New York City.
Background of the Case
The legal case between the two shuls began in 2012, but it was not the first time they sparred over ownership of the Touro Synagogue. Congregation Jeshuat Israel, and Shearith Israel in Manhattan, had a relationship with each other stretching back to the 1820s. Since then, Shearith Israel served as the trustee of the Touro Synagogue, leasing the shul to Jeshuat Israel for $1 per year.
The relationship between the two shuls reached a boiling point in 2011, when Shearith Israel tried stopping Jeshuat Israel from proceeding with its efforts to auction off silver rimonim for $7.2 million. The rimonim date back to the pre-Revolutionary War era, and have been used to adorn Jeshuat Israel’s sifrei Torah since that time.
While initially the litigation between the two congregations centered on ownership of these collectible rimonim, the case quickly erupted into full-blown litigation warfare over ownership and control of the Touro Synagogue and its valuable real estate purchased over 250 years ago.
In ruling that Jeshuat Israel is the rightful owner of the antique rimonim, and removing Shearith Israel as trustee of the Touro Synagogue property, U.S. District Court Judge Jack McConnell provides the public with a fascinating historical account of how the Touro Synagogue came to be and how the early Jewish settlers found peace and religious freedom in this country. The court opinion is replete with an astonishing historical narrative, which details how the Newport Jewish community persevered through wars and hardship over the past two and a half centuries.
History of Jews in Newport and the Touro Synagogue
The early Jewish settlers in America, then known as the British Colonies, were mostly from Sephardic countries like Spain and Portugal. They fled their native lands to escape exploitation, torture, and public executions at the hands of the Catholic Church. Newport, Rhode Island was an early bastion of freedom for the Jews seeking a safe haven and freedom from oppression in the New World.
The first Jewish families arrived in Newport in 1658. They were Sephardic Jews who gathered communally in members’ homes for davening and learning. They called their shul “Nefutzei Yisroel,” and purchased land for a cemetery in 1677. It was one of the earliest documented occasions where Jews in America could bury their deceased without fear of government-sanctioned oppression.
Newport was a successful port town, which rivaled New York and Boston. The Jews there quickly distinguished themselves as influential merchants, many of whom engaged in the slave trade during what was known as the “Golden Age of Newport.” As the community grew and prospered, the community leaders in 1759 turned their attention to purchasing land to build an everlasting shul.
Members of the community were taxed to raise funds to build the shul. The Newport community reached out to other Jewish communities across the globe to assist with this important task. Jewish communities from Jamaica to London heeded the call and contributed to the shul’s construction, which was completed in 1762. The shul was an architectural jewel, and became a fitting place for the congregation that now called itself “Yeshuat Israel.”
During that time period, a religious corporation could not hold title to real estate. To get around this procedural hurdle, the Newport community appointed a three-member panel to jointly hold title to the Touro Synagogue property. The panel consisted of three successful community members: Jacob Rivera, Isaac Hart, and Moses Levy.
Levy’s will would play a key role in the recent litigation between Jeshuat Israel and Shearith Israel. In it, he stated, “I have no exclusive right or Title in the Jewish Public Synagogue.” It was to be held “in trust only. . .for the sole use and benefit of the Jewish Society in Newport.”
Levy’s son-in-law Moses Seixas became the sole trustee of the shul upon his father-in-law’s passing and after the other two trustees had died. Interestingly, it was Seixas who hosted President George Washington in 1790 during his visit to the Touro Synagogue. The visit followed the president’s famous letter to the Newport community declaring that “the Children of the Stock of Abraham” could worship freely in America.
War Ravages Newport
Newport was devastated with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1776. British soldiers occupied the city and the port was destroyed. Jews quickly began leaving en masse, and services in the Touro Synagogue stopped in 1793. Later, the War of 1812 wreaked further havoc on the city, and by 1822 no Jews remained in Newport.
Most members of the community fled to New York, where they joined another early American shul, Congregation Shearith Israel. With them, they brought their sifrei Torah for safekeeping, along with other valuables belonging to Yeshuat Israel. These included the celebrated rimonim at issue in this case. Shearith Israel became the de-facto “trustee” of the Touro Synagogue.
While the Newport Jews relocated to New York, one dedicated non-Jew took upon himself the responsibility of maintaining the Touro Synagogue in their absence. His name was Stephen Guild, and he eventually elicited the assistance of two famous American Jews in this important task. Their names were Abraham and Judah Touro.
The wealthy Touro brothers were the sons of Touro Synagogue’s first-ever rabbi, Isaac Touro. While they did not live in Newport, they maintained a strong connection with the city and gave much tzedakah for the shul’s upkeep. They also helped maintain the adjacent cemetery, and provided an endowment of thousands of dollars in their wills to be used for the salaries of the shul’s rabbi and baal koreh. It’s easy to understand how the shul eventually became known as the “Touro Synagogue.”
Jews Resettle in Newport: 1870s – 1890s
The Touro Synagogue was largely unused from 1822 through 1870. In the early 1870s, Jewish immigrants from Ashkenazic countries began settling in Newport. In a nod to the city’s historical importance to the early Jews, the Ashkenazi Jews began davening in the Touro Synagogue and adopted the name Jeshuat Israel. The congregation maintains this name to this day.
When the Ashkenazi immigrants began using the shul building, they ran into fierce resistance from Shearith Israel in New York. Shearith Israel objected when the Ashkenazi immigrants began adopting Ashkenazi practices in the shul. The dispute was solved when the two communities agreed that Shearith Israel would appoint a Sephardic rabbi, Abraham Mendes, to lead the resurging Newport community. The Touro Synagogue was subsequently rededicated as a vibrant house of worship for the Newport community in 1883.
Trouble resurfaced when Rabbi Mendes passed away in 1893. Jeshuat Israel tried capitalizing in a change in the law that now allowed religious organizations to own real estate. When Jeshuat Israel attempted to cement its ownership of the Touro Synagogue, Shearith Israel sued in court, arguing that it would be a “calamity” to allow the legendary Touro Synagogue to fall to anyone not practicing Sephardic traditions. Shearith Israel even went so far as physically locking the doors to the Touro Synagogue in 1901 to prevent Jeshuat Israel from using the shul.
Peace Between Communities: 1903 – 2008
After various court battles between Jeshuat Israel and Shearith Israel, the two shuls finally brokered a settlement in 1903. Jeshuat Israel acknowledged that Shearith Israel was the trustee of the Touro Synagogue property, and would pay a symbolic lease of $1 per year. Jeshuat Israel was free to select its own rabbi, provided that the shul would officially practice Sephardic customs.
The two shuls gradually had less to do with each other in the ensuing decades. Touro Synagogue became a historical monument in 1945. By 1993, the two communities had virtually no contact with each other.
Following the global economic crisis in 2008, Jeshuat Israel took inventory of its assets to determine how it could continue functioning. The shul’s leadership decided that it could raise funds by selling its silver rimonim, which were crafted by colonial silversmith Myer Myers some time between 1766 and 1776.
2012: Litigation Resumes
Jeshuat Israel hired auction powerhouse Christie’s to negotiate the sale of the silver rimonim. The goal was to sell them to raise money to continue operating the Touro Synagogue. Christie’s negotiated a price of $7.2 million from a museum in Boston. But when Jeshuat Israel attempted to proceed with the sale, Shearith Israel threatened a lawsuit to stop it.
Shearith Israel argued, among others claims, it was the rightful owner of the rimonim. Later, Shearith Israel asserted ownership of not only the rimonim, but the Touro Synagogue itself. Shearith Israel went as far as trying to evict Jeshuat Israel from the property.
The key question the Court had to decide was who owns the rimonim, and more importantly, who owns the Touro Synagogue?
Touro Synagogue: A Charitable Trust 250 Years in the Making
The Court acknowledged that at the heart of the dispute between the two shuls is the age-old machlokes between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. As for the legal issues, the Court examined thousands of historical documents, including Moses Levy’s will. The Court noted that the three-member shul panel originally controlled the Touro Synagogue, and this responsibility passed informally through the ages to members who joined Shearith Israel. Eventually, Shearith Israel itself became trustee of the Touro Synagogue and the silver rimonim.
Nevertheless, while Shearith Israel had legal control of Touro Synagogue, the Court ruled that it never owned the property. The Court noted that Shearith Israel returned the silver rimonim to the Touro Synagogue when it was rededicated in the 1880s. The New York congregation housed them for safekeeping, but never enjoyed exclusive ownership over these historical artifacts. The Court ruled that the Touro Synagogue was placed in a charitable religious trust which was created for “public Jewish worship” when it was first consecrated over 250 years ago.
Finally, the law imposes strict requirements on any trustee managing property for a beneficiary. The Court expressed serious concern at the fact that Shearith Israel argued that it owned both the rimonim and the Touro Synagogue property.
The Court explained that a trustee’s job is to preserve and protect trust property. When a trustee claims that he or she owns the property that he or she is charged with maintaining, a serious breach of fiduciary duties has occurred. The Court expressed similar concerns at how Shearith Israel tried evicting Jeshuat Israel – Newport’s only shul – from the Touro Synagogue.
In ruling for Congregation Jeshuat Israel, the Court removed Shearith Israel as trustee of the Touro Synagogue. It appointed Jeshuat Israel as trustee of the Touro Synagogue instead, noting how Jeshuat Israel has tirelessly maintained and preserved the shul for over 100 years, without any assistance from Shearith Israel. The Court also ruled that Jeshuat Israel was free to proceed with the sale of the silver rimonim, the issue which precipitated the present lawsuit.
Will this be the last round of litigation involving the legendary Touro Synagogue? It appears that Judge McConnell closed the door to any future claims of ownership of the iconic shul. But if history is any indication, the Touro Synagogue’s legacy and traditions could very well be the subject of future disputes. Until then, the charitable trust established for “public Jewish worship” over 250 years ago in the city of Newport will continue to be a source of pride and treasure for the entire Jewish people.
Michael Rubinstein is a Los Angeles based personal injury and accident attorney.