Lawyers spar over ownership of oldest U.S. synagogue

Fri Sep 18, 2015 4:38pm EDT
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By John Larrabee

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Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which originally bid for the bells, has since withdrawn its offer.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