Congregation of oldest US synagogue asks for court rehearing

120 family congregation appeals after court awards ownership of synagogue they pray in to NY congregation.


Touro Synagogue
Touro Synagogue
Hezki Ezra

JTA - The congregation that worships in America’s oldest synagogue building will ask for a rehearing in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to a new court filing.

The court in Boston last week ruled in favor of Manhattan’s Shearith Israel, which is the oldest Jewish congregation in the country, giving it control of the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the religious home of Congregation Jeshuat Israel.

The decision also gave Shearith Israel ownership of silver bells, called rimonim, which are late 18th-century filials handcrafted by Myer Myers, one of the most prominent silversmiths of the Colonial era. The rimonim are valued at $7.4 million.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who occasionally sits in on cases in the 1st Circuit and wrote last week’s decision, this week gave Congregation Jeshuat Israel an extension until Sept. 5 to file a rehearing petition at the congregation’s request, the Associated Press reported.

The case concerns “the continued vitality of the congregation that has prayed in that synagogue for well over a hundred years,” read the Jeshuat Israel filing, according to the AP.

Shearith Israel has served as trustee of the Touro Synagogue dating back to the early 19th century.

The current dispute began in 2012, when Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which holds regular services at Touro, attempted to sell the silver bells to establish an endowment to maintain a rabbi and care for the building, which was designated a national historic site in 1946. Shearith Israel sued to stop the sale and attempted to evict the 120-family congregation from the building.

The rimonim have been on loan from the Touro Synagogue to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which had made an offer to purchase them. The museum has since rescinded its offer.