The original Touro family and friends of the 1600s were shipowners, and bequeathed a princely sum for the upkeep and preservation of their local Sephardic synagogue, arguably the first synagogue building in the USA. Probably their most feared opponents were privateers or legal pirates, and now 500 years later piracy is about to come true, thanks to the blatant bullying and greed of the Shearith Israel Congregation of New York City.
The Newport congregation and the Touro Synagogue Foundation managed to raise over $15 million for the restoration of the synagogue and the construction of the Loeb-Touro Visitors Center dedicated to George Washington and freedom of religion. The costly restoration of the synagogue required a $3 million bank loan endorsed by the congregants and the president of Congregation Jeshuat Israel with no assistance from Shearith Israel, to my knowledge. With the recent decision to award ownership of the building to usurpers, this National Treasure becomes simply an empty stage prop worth only the value of its spoils, the rimonim.
The current building without a local mikveh (ritual bath), according to Jewish tradition, does not really qualify for Orthodox rituals. Will it become simply a museum devoted to Jewish avarice and greed or perhaps a two-month summer retreat for the weekend trysts of the black-hatted devout from New York avoiding the summer heat of lower Manhattan? It is obvious that the Appeals Court judge had little contact with reality, as the Shearith Israel Congregation of New York, to my knowledge has not attended services nor assisted in the physical or financial upkeep of the building for at least 100 years. What about the old rule that “possession is 9/10ths of the Law” ?
The Newport Jeshuat Israel Congregation missed the boat by not breaking the umbilical cord lease from years ago with NYC’s Shearith Israel and becoming a stand-alone Reform or Conservative congregation leasing a historic relic.
Sadly, the current rendition of the Touro Synagogue has lost all religious significance for the Jewish community of Newport or of Rhode Island today, and now the Jeshuat Israel Congregation seems to have lost ownership of their building.
George Burman, AIA