It is bad enough when two Jewish congregations seriously disagree with one another, but when they seek to settle their differences through legal means – indeed, in federal district court – it becomes even sadder. To some litigants and many observers, such an encounter is a shame.
The bench trial, which began on June 1 in Judge John J. McConnell’s courtroom on the second floor of Providence’s august 1908 courthouse, embodies a bitter rivalry between two of America’s most storied Jewish congregations. Newport’s Jeshuat Israel, commonly known as “Touro,” is a successor to Yeshuat Israel, British North America’s second oldest Jewish congregation, founded in 1658. In November 2012 it sued New York City’s Shearith Israel, British North America’s mother Jewish congregation, founded in 1654.
Through various agreements with its landlord, Shearith Israel, Jeshuat Israel is required to uphold Orthodox Sephardic tradition. Although subtleties of worship are not in dispute, the New York congregation, the defendant, has countersued its sister congregation, the plaintiff.
The acrimony revolves principally around the ownership of a magnificent set of rimonim or Torah finials, which was crafted by Myer Myers, one of colonial America’s most distinguished silversmiths, who served five times as parnas or president of Shearith Israel. Among a much larger medley of vessels and implements, including a trio of church basins, Myers and his assistants designed and executed three other sets of rimonim. One set is owned by Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia’s colonial Sephardic congregation; another is owned by Shearith Israel; and a third set is also housed at Touro.
In November 2010, when Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts opened its glorious Arts of the Americas wing, the Newport congregation agreed to lend one set of Myers’ rimonim, which, except for use during High Holy days, is stored at a Newport bank. When displayed within the MFA’s gallery of colonial Newport art, a stunning ensemble of furniture and painting, the rimonim could not have looked more fetching. Two years later, when museum officials sought to purchase these Myers treasures, Jeshuat Israel agreed through its agent, Christie’s, to sell them for an astonishing $7.4 million.
As part of its confidential contract with the auction house, the Newport congregation could not contact any party, however. But after eight days of testimony, it appears that Jeshuat Israel never intended to inform its New York sister of its intentions. Although Newport leaders never conducted a detailed historical inquiry of their own or commissioned an expert to do so, they were thoroughly convinced that they held title to the rimonim as well as the rest of Touro’s precious contents. Christie’s too never studied the set’s provenance.
Shearith Israel has submitted an overwhelming list of exhibits – more than 500 – to substantiate its legal claim not only to Touro’s contents, but also to the synagogue and the land on which it stands. The New York congregation has no interest in sharing in the proceeds of a sale, however. Holding aloft Jewish law, Shearith Israel’s leaders maintain that such holy objects can be sold only to ransom hostages or to fund purchase of a new Torah.
Additional bitterness is reflected through the gleam of the rimonim. Jeshuat Israel’s leaders, worried about their congregation’s survival, have argued that the proceeds of the MFA sale would be used to establish a $7 million irrevocable endowment. Its annual income would then be used exclusively for operating expenses. These leaders point out that over many decades, with assistance from the Touro Synagogue Foundation, Jeshuat Israel has heroically raised millions of dollars not only to restore the contested set of rimonim but to restore the synagogue and care for its community center, rabbi’s home, grounds and colonial cemetery. The Newport leaders have also accused Shearith Israel leaders of offering negligible financial help or any other support or guidance. Speaking in theoretical, if not purely fanciful, terms, Jeshuat Israel leaders seek to replace Shearith Israel with another trustee.
Shearith Israel leaders have asserted, by contrast, that their Jeshuat Israel counterparts have sought little assistance; indeed, the Newport congregation, its tenant, has failed on numerous occasions to pay the annual symbolic rent of $1. The New York congregation asserts, moreover, that, despite its own financial burdens, it had agreed, before the lawsuit, to donate up to $75,000 per year for a decade. Shearith Israel’s witnesses also affirm that a few of its members have made some significant contributions, including for the rimonim’s restoration. Resorting to its own theoretical, if not purely fanciful, rhetoric, the New York leaders also seek to replace Jeshuat Israel with another Jewish congregation.
The full weight and intensity of this legal Armageddon is not fully demonstrated by a summation of major arguments, however. Jeshuat Israel has been represented in the courtroom by Steven Snow, a highly experienced Rhode Island litigator, and by four accomplished members of a New York City firm. Louise Ellen Teitz, a professor at Roger Williams University School of Law and a Jeshuat Israel member, has assisted with the plaintiff’s case. Shearith Israel, in turn, has been represented in the courtroom by a renowned Rhode Island litigator, Deming Sherman, and five equally accomplished members of a New York City firm. The defense team’s lead attorney, Louis Solomon, is in fact Shearith Israel’s current parnas. Each legal team has been fortified by additional staff members, including paralegals and digital technicians, during witness examinations.
Jeshuat Israel has called four witnesses, Shearith Israel only three. All have been thoroughly, if not relentlessly, cross-examined and questioned on redirect. Indeed, the qualifications offered and the conclusions reached by the defendants’ two expert witnesses, professors from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Brown University, have been mercilessly challenged.
So, after displaying his unbiased and cheerful manner, what will Judge McConnell do? Rather than proceeding directly to closing arguments (and producing greater exhaustion among participants and spectators alike), he has asked both teams of lawyers to submit additional briefs. Closing arguments will be heard on Monday, July 20.
The sadness of sister congregations hurling accusations against each other is ironically contrasted by the Great Seal of the United States, a plaster relief sculpture of which hangs behind and high above the judge’s podium. Amid several motifs symbolizing the original 13 states, a “cloud of glory” floats above the bald eagle’s head. Enshrined within it is a six-pointed star, whose equipoise and symmetry should beckon and warn all Jewish observers.
GEORGE GOODWIN, a member of Temple Beth-El, has edited the “Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes” for more than 10 years.