Touro Synagogue Eviction Decision
Touro Synagogue Eviction Decision
by AARON GINSBURG
August 24, 2023. Newport, Rhode Island. At the Newport County Courthouse in Newport, Rhode Island, Superior Court Judge Maureen B. Keogh ruled in favor of Congregation Shearith Israel in its suit to evict Congregation Jeshuat Israel from Touro Synagogue. At the end of her long ruling, she stayed the eviction until after September 11, with the actual date depending on the attorneys in the case, when she would entertain arguments on whether or not the stay should be continued.
The trial on June 29 was followed by written arguments, with some oral follow-up today, after which the Judge issued her ruling. She began by saying that not many cases kept her awake at night, but this one did.
Mitchell Edwards, attorney for Shearith Israel, referred to a ruling of the United States Court of Appeals in Boston which ruled that Shearith Israel owned Touro Synagogue and its appurtenances. The judge said that ruling, written by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, put boundaries on what she could consider as she pondered the case.
She ruled that a 1945 agreement between CSI, CJI and the United States Department of the Interior did not affect the ownership or the lease in any way. She skimmed through the agreement and pointed out that it dealt solely with preservation and restoration issues. She chided both sides for their inconsistent use of the agreement over the course of the long legal struggle.
She also said that the eviction notice was clear and legally acceptable.
Jeshuat Israel claimed that Louis Solomon, Parnas of Shearith Israel, did not give his capacity in the eviction notice. Judge Keough pointed text of the document, where it says, "On behalf of Congregation Shearith Israel..."
Jeshuat Israel claimed that there was not a clear reference about the location of Touro Synagogue. Judge Keogh said she agreed with Attorney Crane's assertion that the eviction suit was a special case, and dismissed the idea that the location of the synagogue was unclear.
Jeshuat Israel made several attempts to avoid being evicted by paying the one dollar annual rent, even sending $10 to attempt to get a long term agreement. These were all returned by Shearith Israel, once after a long delay which they attributed to their office being closed due to COVID-19. Jeshuat Israel's attorney Michael D. Crane claimed the rent was accepted. Judge Keogh said she thought it was understandable that during COVID-19 things were far from normal.
The eviction proceeding was solely about the eviction. Judge Keogh made sure that no other issues were discussed.
A legal source commented that Judge Keough took a lot of time to review the case, didn't give a home court advantage and that her long decision might make an appeal difficult.
The eviction of the long standing tenant, since 1903, was preceded by numerous attempts to come to a mutual agreement, including several mediation attempts.
When Touro Synagogue was built in the 1760s, congregations in Rhode Island could not own real estate, so three members owned the building. The colonial congregation withered away after the Revolutionary War. The last surviving owner left control to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the first American Jewish congregation.
After the Civil War, Jews gradually moved to Newport. Shearith Israel reopened the building and sent a series of Rabbis. Jeshuat Israel was incorporated in 1893. Its by-laws, as amended in 2011, state, “Its principal place of worship shall be Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island." In 1899 another congregation, the Touro Congregation was founded.
In the early 1900s Shearith Israel was having difficulty managing the situation, and all were locked out of Touro Synagogue. To break the deadlock, some Jews broke into Touro Synagogue. In 1903, Jeshuat Israel signed a lease with Shearith Israel for the use of the Touro Synagogue for one dollar per year. The five year lease was renewed for 5 years in 1908. Since then by paying the rent, Jeshuat Israel continued to worship at Touro Synagogue.
The current legal dispute goes back to 2012, which Jeshuat Israel attempted to sell a pair of rimonim, Torah finials, for 7.4 million dollars. Shearith Israel pointed out that Jeshuat Israel did not own them. This eventually led to the US Court of Appeals ruling about ownership.
It is unclear why relations broke down between Jeshuat Israel and Shearith Israel. Is it real issues, misunderstandings, personalities or a combination? Jeshuat Israel backing away from a one dollar a year lease of Touro Synagogue, the crown jewel of American Judaism, is also hard to understand.