Court Rules in Favor of U.S.' Oldest Synagogue in $7.4 Million Legal Battle

Judge rules that the congregation of the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island owns the religious site, and therefore had the right to sell ritual bells.

An interior view of the Touro Synagogue, the nation's oldest, is seen from the "ladies gallery" in Newport, R.I., May 28, 2015.
Stephan Savoia, AP

REUTERS - The Rhode Island congregation that worships at the United States' oldest synagogue owns that house of worship and its assets, a federal judge ruled on Monday, rejecting a New York synagogue's claim to oversight. 

The ruling follows a four-year legal battle that began when members of the Touro Synagogue in Newport tried to sell a set of ritual bells worth some $7.4 million and New York's Congregation Shearith Israel attempted to block the deal, citing an 18th century agreement that named it a trustee. 

The historic building was consecrated in 1763, when the town had one of the largest Jewish populations in the American colonies, including many who had fled the Spanish Inquisition. It was vacated in 1776 when most of the city's Jewish population fled at the start of the Revolutionary War.

Members of the synagogue at that time shipped a pair of valuable silver bells used in rituals to the New York synagogue, and asked its leaders to act as trustees for the vacant temple. Worshippers returned by the 1870s and the New York group's influence waned. 

"For at least the past 20 years, Shearith Israel has not taken any meaningful action in its capacity as trustee for the Touro Synagogue and lands," U.S. District Judge John McConnell wrote. 

Shearith sued Newport's Congregation Jeshuat Israel when it learned the Rhode Island group had reached a deal to sell the bells, known as "rimonim," to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The Touro congregation had planned to use the funds to create a reserve to pay for maintenance of the building, after the congregations its finances had been hard hit by the 2008 credit crisis. 

The deal has since been canceled. 

The New York congregation also claimed ownership of the bells and charged that the Newport group was violating Jewish tradition by selling ritual objects. 

McConnell wrote that Shearith had gone against its duty as a trustee of the Newport synagogue.

Deming Sherman, an attorney for the New York congregation, said his clients were still reviewing the judge's ruling and had not decided whether to take additional legal steps. 

"We're obviously disappointed," Sherman said in a brief phone interview. 

Gary Naftalis, a lawyer for the Rhode Island congregation, in a statement called the decision an "important victory." 

"The effort to evict the Rhode Island congregation has been thwarted, and an important piece of American history and of Jewish history has been preserved," he said.