September 18, 2015 / 8:40 PM / 2 years ago

Lawyers spar over ownership of oldest U.S. synagogue

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Reuters) - Lawyers for two Jewish congregations feuding over the ownership of the United States’ oldest synagogue made their closing arguments on Friday, leaving the question of who owns the temple in the hands of a federal judge in Providence, Rhode Island.

The long-running dispute focuses on who owns the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue, the local Newport, Rhode Island, congregation that worships there or another in New York that received the deed in the 19th century at a time when the Jewish population had left the coastal city.

The fight erupted in 2012, when the Newport Congregation Jeshuat Israel tried to sell historic bells worth an estimated $7.4 million, in a bid to establish an endowment for repairs and maintenance to the two-story building. New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel sued to block the deal, saying the bells were religious objects.

A lawyer for the Newport congregation charged the New York group had long ignored the historic synagogue and became interested only when valuable objects were at stake.

“They neglected their duties for decades and decades and decades,” said Gary Naftalis, the lawyer for the Newport group. “In the summer of 2012 they really got interested ... For 7,400,000 reasons.”

Louis Solomon, a lawyer for Congregation Shearith Israel, said it had no obligation to support the Touro Synagogue financially, though it has provided funds from time to time.

“We have cultural and religious oversight. We have never shirked cultural and ritual oversight,” Solomon said. “They decided to sell the rimonim - the crown jewel, the birthright - with no regard for the fact that they are sacred ritual objects ... We don’t sell our ritual objects. We never sell our ritual objects.”

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which originally bid for the bells, has since withdrawn its offer.

The New York group gained ownership of the Newport synagogue in 1822, when the city’s last Jewish resident moved out. By the late 1800s, however, Jews had returned to Newport, and the synagogue returned to use. The Newport congregation has leased the synagogue from the New York group ever since.

Touro Synagogue has become a symbol of religious tolerance in the United States. Shortly after taking office as president, George Washington wrote the congregation assuring them that religious prejudice would play no role in the newly formed United States government.

U.S. District Judge Mark McConnell did not say when he would make a decision.

Reporting by John Larrabee; Editing by Scott Malone and Eric Beech

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