A federal judge has granted control of the country’s oldest synagogue to the Rhode Island congregation that worships there and not the building’s Manhattan-based founding organization.
In a ruling Monday in Providence, U.S. District Judge Jack McConnell gave Congregation Jeshuat Israel in Newport control over the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue — and permission to sell items within it — despite objections from Shearith Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side, the Associated Press reported.
The decision is the latest development in a conflict that began in 2012, when Jeshuat Israel, a 120-family congregation that worships at Touro, agreed to sell a set of 18th-century bells adorning a Torah scroll for $7.4 million to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The proceeds were to establish an endowment to care for the Touro building and keep a rabbi in residence.
Shearith Israel, which is the oldest continuously operating American Jewish congregation and has served as the trustee of Touro for nearly 200 years, sued to stop the sale, claiming that Jeshuat Israel did not have the right to sell synagogue property. It also attempted to evict the congregation from the building.
On Monday, McConnell ruled that the Newport congregation is the owner of the bells and could choose what to do with them. The Boston museum revoked its offer amid the controversy.
The judge also removed Shearith Israel as a trustee, replacing it with the congregation because Jeshuat Israel has maintained the building and its grounds and kept it open for public worship.
“The central issue here is the legacy of some of the earliest Jewish settlers in North America, who desired to make Newport a permanent haven for public Jewish worship,” McConnell wrote in the 106-page decision, according to the AP.
A national historic site, Touro Synagogue attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, according to the AP. In the early 19th century, when the size of Newport’s Jewish community plummeted, Shearith Israel assumed responsibility for the building.
According to the AP, Shearith Israel has not been actively involved with Touro in recent decades.