Rhode Island congregants who worship in the nation’s oldest synagogue will not be evicted, a judge ruled in their favor Monday. But the year-long legal dispute over the historic building appears far from over.
Newport-based Congregation Jeshuat Israel is the current tenant of the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue. It is owned by New York-based Congregation Shearith Israel, which filed a motion in state court in February to take control of the board that oversees day-to-day operations.
Newport District Court Judge Colleen Hastings on Monday denied Congregation Shearith Israel’s motion.
The New York congregation denied it was trying to evict the Rhode Island congregation, saying the motion was an attempt to seize control of the board that oversees the day-to-day operations of the synagogue.
Louis Solomon, president of Congregation Shearith Israel, said in an email that the motion was denied on a technicality — and the court case will continue.
“Shearith Israel is committed to changing the regime of the corporate tenant of Touro Synagogue,” Solomon said, adding that the congregation “is fully committed to pursuing all legal efforts to change control of the board.”
Louise Teitz, co-chair of the Newport Parish, called the eviction attempt “meritless”.
“We hope that our New York landlord will now choose to finalize the terms of a long-term lease for Jeshuat Israel that will provide security and stability for our congregation going forward,” she said in a statement.
The Touro Synagogue was dedicated in 1763, but the Jewish community that founded it eventually dispersed and Congregation Shearith Israel became trustees.
The current congregation has worshiped at the site since 1883 and rents it for $1 a year, according to a 1903 agreement.
Disputes between the congregations began in 2011 when the Newport congregation moved to sell a set of ritual bells to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $7.4 million. Congregation Shearith Israel sued, citing the trusteeship agreement.
A trial judge initially awarded control of the property and the clocks to the Newport congregation, but in 2017 the First US Court of Appeals reversed that decision. In 2019, the US Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case.
Touro Synagogue holds an important place in the history of the nation’s commitment to religious freedom. In 1790, George Washington visited Touro and sent a letter to the congregation pledging America’s commitment to religious freedom, writing that the young nation “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no aid.”