Bet-the-Synagogue Case: Reversal for Congregation Shearith Israel in Hotly Contested Suit
Congregation Shearith Israel won a complete reversal in the First Circuit Court of Appeals of a lower court decision that had erroneously turned Touro Synagogue over to its tenants.
Congregation Shearith Israel, the country’s oldest Jewish congregation (dating from 1654), has owned Touro Synagogue (the oldest synagogue building in America, dating from 1760) since the early 19th century. The original congregation of Newport Jews had left Newport, Rhode Island, after the turmoil of the Revolutionary War period, and many became members of Shearith Israel in New York.
Jews began to return to Newport in the 1880s. Shearith Israel opened the synagogue to them, and in 1903 signed a lease with the new congregation, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, letting them use the synagogue and its “paraphernalia,” for the token rent of $1/year. That “paraphernalia” included colonial-era silver “rimonim” – a pair of finials that adorn the Torah. This particular pair was made by silversmith Myer Myers, a contemporary of Paul Revere and the first Jew to become a member of Britain’s silversmith guild. Myers had also made a pair for Shearith Israel.
In 2012, in derogation of the lease, Jeshuat Israel voted to sell the rimonim to fund an endowment. Shearith Israel found out and asserted its ownership and its religious objection to the sale of such objects that partake of the holiness of the Torah. Jeshuat Israel brought suit in Rhode Island, asserting its ownership of the rimonim – and also challenging Shearith Israel’s ownership of the synagogue itself, alleging it was held in trust and that Shearith Israel should be removed as trustee.
After a 9-day bench trial, the trial court issued a 106-page decision on May 16, 2016, finding in favor of Jeshuat Israel. Shearith Israel was thus completely removed from any further connection with Touro Synagogue, for the first time in 200 years.
In the August 2, 2017, decision of the First Circuit, the decision of the lower court was reversed in toto. Shearith Israel was declared the outright owner of both the rimonim and the Touro Synagogue, free of any trust obligations to Jeshuat Israel.
Associate Justice Souter wrote the unanimous opinion. The First Circuit “reverse[d] on the basis of the parties’ own agreements,” including the lease. The Court found that the lease’s “nominal rent of course, expresses a hopeful, if not kindly, disposition on the landlord’s part, but is not an acknowledgement of any obligation of legally recognized trusteeship.” Moreover, the Court found that the lease obligated Jeshuat Israel “to maintain the premises” and that “it had no discretion but to conduct ‘the usual and stated religious services according to the ritual rites and customs of the [Sephardic] Jews as at this time practiced’ in CSI’s own synagogue in New York.”
The First Circuit embraced Shearith Israel’s argument that the express inclusion of “paraphernalia” in the lease “cover[ed] the rimonim.”
After analyzing the lease, together with three other 20th century civil documents – a 1903 settlement between the parties, and two later contracts with the federal government concerning the historical preservation of Touro Synagogue – the Court ruled that Shearith Israel had prevailed: “We hold that the only reasonable conclusions to be drawn from [these documents] are that CSI [Shearith Israel] owns both the rimonim and the real property free of any civilly cognizable trust obligations to CJI [Jeshuat Israel],” and that “CJI's interest in the Synagogue building and related real property mentioned above is solely that of holdover lessee.”
Thus, Shearith Israel was restored to the position it had held for centuries.