Newport congregation faces possible eviction

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The eviction proceeding filed in Rhode Island District Court on Feb. 1 by Congregation Shearith Israel against Newport’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel is the latest episode in an apparent feud between the two historic Orthodox congregations.

Both congregations can rightfully claim a place in history as among the oldest in North America. Shearith Israel, in New York City, owns Touro Synagogue, in Newport, where Congregation Jeshuat Israel worships. The New York congregation leases the building to CJI.

A dispute began in 2012, when CJI tried to sell two rimonim (bells) for $7.4 million to start an endowment for the synagogue. The rimonim are late 18th-century finials handcrafted by Myer Myers, one of the most prominent silversmiths of the Colonial era.

Shearith Israel went to court claiming that they owned the building as well as its contents. After several rounds in court, the New York synagogue’s ownership of the building and its valuable artifacts was essentially confirmed when, in 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up Jeshuat Israel’s claim that it was the rightful owner.

Relations again became contentious in June, after a gravestone for former ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. was installed in the Touro Synagogue Cemetery, which belongs to the congregation. According to Louise Ellen Teitz, co-president of the congregation, nobody was aware that the gravestone was being installed until a photo appeared in Newport This Week. Teitz said CJI was told Loeb’s representatives would be taking measurements.

An immediate apology was issued by CJI and the marker was removed, although the cemetery is not part of the congregation’s lease, according to Teitz. Loeb, who financed the Loeb Visitors Center at the Touro Synagogue National Historic Site, is very much alive.

But after this mishap, Shearith Israel made several demands, including two seats on the 15-member CJI board of directors.

Talks between the two congregations, including mediation facilitated by Frank Williams, a former chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, have been unsuccessful.

In October, Shearith Israel sent a notice demanding that the congregation leave the premises by the end of January.

Teitz termed this “sad” in an interview on Feb. 2. She said, “The idea that one congregation would evict another, that one congregation could evict a local congregation. It’s very sad.”

She added, “This is not just a historic building. This is a living congregation, and it’s enhanced by local Jews.”

Teitz said the 120-year-old congregation has about 180 members.

In a statement provided to Jewish Rhode Island, Louis M. Solomon, president of Shearith Israel, insisted that no congregants are being evicted. And they hope the current rabbi will stay.

“Congregation Shearith Israel is exercising the rights clearly granted it by the final court decision against CJI.  Our disagreement is solely with a few members of the CJI Board, and we wish to restructure the group overseeing day-to-day activities of Touro Synagogue to restore trust and confidence that has historically existed, for close to 200 years, between Shearith Israel and Touro Synagogue,” the statement said.

“We will continue to worship [at Touro Synagogue],” said Teitz, “until there is a court decision that tells us we have to leave.”

FRAN OSTENDORF (fostendorf@jewishallianceri.org) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.