No doubt many members of Newport’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel were not merely disappointed but shocked on Aug. 2, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, reversed the May 16, 2016, decision by Judge John J. McConnell, Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island.
In a unanimous, three-judge opinion written by retired Associate Justice David H. Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals ruled that New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel was not the trustee but the owner of Touro Synagogue as well as its contents and land. Consequently, Jeshuat Israel was forbidden to sell a set of 18th-century rimonim (Torah finials), worth approximately $7 million, to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, in order to bolster its finances.
In comparison with Judge McConnell’s lengthy decision, which had been based on nine days of testimony by seven witnesses and 900 exhibits, Justice Souter’s decision was succinct. Rather than scrutinizing the convoluted history of the rimonim’s ownership, for example, he focused on the 1903 and 1908 leases between the two congregations. By doing so, he rejected Jeshuat Israel’s contention that it was somehow the successor to Yeshuat Israel, Newport’s colonial-era congregation, or that a trust between the Newport and New York congregations had been somehow abused or violated.
Although I can understand its disappointment and shock, I hope that Jeshuat Israel will decide against an appeal to a full panel of Court of Appeals judges or to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not being a lawyer, I am unable to appreciate most of the subtle legal issues at stake, which had been impressively argued by the plaintiff’s and the defendant’s attorneys. But as a Jewish Rhode Islander, who cares deeply about Touro Synagogue’s fate, I fear worsened relations between the revered but wounded congregations.
I regret that Jeshuat Israel ever brought a lawsuit against its sister congregation. In order to avoid a bitter, expensive and public lawsuit, Shearith Israel had originally proposed a ruling about the rimonim’s ownership by a beit din (a religious court), which Jeshuat Israel rejected. But I also regret Shearith Israel’s threat, during the trial in District Court, that it could expel Jeshuat Israel from Touro Synagogue and replace it with a new congregation devoted to Orthodox ritual and tradition.
The simple fact is that the Newport and New York congregations have always needed each another. Most likely, there never would have been a colonial-era cemetery or congregation in Rhode Island without the glorious precedent of North America’s first Jewish congregation, established in 1654. Similarly, Shearith Israel provided funds for the construction and maintenance of America’s second oldest synagogue, which had been erected in 1763, only 33 years after its own.
Since the 1820s, when the last Jews departed Newport, Shearith Israel served not only as a partial caretaker of Yeshuat Israel’s property, but provided rabbinic oversight and inspiration to summer visitors before a new wave of Jews settled in Newport during the late 19th-century and, in turn, established rival congregations. Eventually, on quite generous terms, Shearith Israel was eager to see Touro Synagogue returned to its original use. Indeed, the New Yorkers helped enable a miracle: the revival of Newport’s Jewish communal life.
Newport’s Jewish community also deserves enormous praise and credit. Its dedication and leadership also made possible the fulfillment of New York’s dream. Indeed, the Newport community has shouldered the lion’s share of financial responsibility over many decades. It has heroically and joyously persevered against considerable odds.
Neither congregation can survive and prosper without relying upon the other. Indeed, during the trial, Shearith Israel offered greater financial assistance. The president, who led its legal team during the trial and appeal, has publically sought an end to hostilities. Given Jeshuat Israel’s commitment over nearly 70 years to function as an Orthodox congregation (despite the preferences of many members), Shearith Israel can also provide further encouragement and guidance.
Without working together for each congregation’s best interests, Newport and New York might face dreadful, if not catastrophic, choices. What would happen if Jeshuat Israel could not sustain itself? As in the past, it would have no choice but to turn to Shearith Israel, both its sister and mother congregation. And what would Shearith Israel do in the event of Jeshuat Israel’s demise? Its moral stature would be horribly tarnished. And it would have to struggle mightily to help create a new congregation based on its predecessor’s significant and honorable record.
For the sake of Klal Yisrael, let the warring congregations renounce further legal actions! Let them strive for for mutual respect, understanding and cooperation.
GEORGE GOODWIN, a member of Temple Beth-El and Touro Synagogue Foundation, is editor of “Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.” He and his wife, Betsey, first visited Touro in 1983, four years before moving to Rhode Island.