Shul versus shul: No cause for celebration


Unlike many members of Newport’s Jeshuat Israel, known far and wide as “Touro Synagogue,” I cannot delight in Judge John J. McConnell’s recent unequivocal decision in support of the plaintiff. Not only did he determine that Jeshuat Israel was the rightful owner of a disputed set of 18th-century rimmonim crafted by the New York silversmith, Myer Myers; the judge dissolved the relationship that had united two of America’s most remarkable congregations. Yes, McConnell rewrote a unique and precious chapter in our never-ending Jewish past.


Although I had attended the trial’s nine days of testimony and closing arguments in Rhode Island’s federal district court and had studied highlights of the case’s thousands of pages of documents, I was at a loss to understand many of the complex legal issues that were vigorously contested. I do know, however, that, for the sake of Klal Yisrael (Jewish unity), this case should never have been brought to trial. 

Aware of the possible damage to both sides, Shearith Israel, North America’s mother Jewish congregation, had proposed arbitration by a bet din (rabbinic court), but Jeshuat Israel rejected such a conciliatory step. A trial could generate unfavorable publicity for both sides, and a gentile judge could be placed in an extremely awkward situation. 

I do believe that McConnell did his best to be even-handed.  His 106-page decision, based on a deep immersion in American Jewish history and a plethora of legal precedents, was the equivalent of a lengthy master’s thesis or a pithy dissertation. 

But as a historian – not a lawyer – I believe that his decision was flawed. Jeshuat Israel’s brash claim to the rimmonim’s ownership was based almost entirely on the fact that, having been returned by Shearith Israel, they were in its possession since 1894. But the plaintiff did not call even one expert witness to help illuminate the documentary record, which showed that the rimmonim had been in Newport as early as 1780.

Testimony further revealed that, when Jeshuat Israel’s lay leaders approached Christie’s auction house to find a buyer for the rimmonim, they did not conduct a study of their provenance, and they did not urge or even request Christie’s to do so.  Shockingly, Touro’s lay leaders agreed to the auction house’s insistence on confidentiality, keeping Shearith Israel and other Jewish institutions in the dark about the proposed sale.  Such self-imposed secrecy was intended to speed the rimmonim’s sale and maximize profits.  Thus, I reject McConnell’s conclusion that two of Touro’s officers made “credible” and “compelling” witnesses.

During the trial, Shearith Israel did call two expert witnesses.  Unfortunately, the first, Dr. Vivian B. Mann, a longtime curator at New York’s Jewish Museum and a renowned authority on Jewish art, made a far from favorable impression. When cross-examined in a withering manner, she was unable to give concise answers, interjected some unsolicited comments, and showed a faulty understanding of some of Shearith Israel’s 18th-century financial records. But McConnell, who characterized Mann as a “zealot” and a “not credible” witness, was unable or unwilling to understand some of her more nuanced points. For example, when preparing exhibition catalogs, curators are not required to reaffirm an object’s provenance. 

Shearith Israel’s second expert witness, Linford Fisher, a professor of colonial religious history at Brown University, added little to the record. Yet, neither side called Dr. David L. Barquist, a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art who is the leading Myers scholar.

Touro Synagogue’s four witnesses, all current or former board members, bemoaned the congregation’s financial condition and blamed Shearith Israel’s lay leaders, as trustees of the synagogue’s building, contents and land, for lackadaisical or incompetent supervision.  Yes, the New York congregation could have played a far more active role – beyond accepting $1 for annual rent and approving the hiring of Orthodox rabbis – but Jeshuat Israel’s leaders never acknowledged that Shearith Israel had facilitated the gift of a pair of Myers rimmonim to their congregation in 1892. Furthermore, neither congregation asked its sister to account for a true shanda – the secretive sale of the famed and priceless Washington letter to the Morris Morgenstern Foundation in 1949 for a meager sum.

Preoccupied with its own financial worries, Shearith Israel claimed that it could not offer Jeshuat Israel much assistance.  Nevertheless, the defense did recently offer to provide the plaintiff with a stream of annual allocations.

Shearith Israel’s legal team, led by the congregation’s nimble and fierce parnas, insisted that Touro was nothing more than its tenant. Indeed, as Touro leaders sought McConnell’s permission to dissolve the trusteeship that had been established with Shearith Israel in the early 19th century, the New York congregation argued to evict its sister from America’s oldest synagogue in favor of some unknown congregation that would better exemplify Newport Jewry.

McConnell rejected Shearith Israel’s tenuous claim to outright ownership of Touro Synagogue, its contents and land.  Explaining that a trustee could not harbor animosity toward, nor inflame its relationship with, a beneficiary, he decided that Jeshuat Israel’s leaders were entitled to serve as their own trustees. In effect, McConnell granted a divorce to a couple with irreconcilable differences – or differences that a civil official was unauthorized to reconcile.

But clearly Touro leaders have failed to understand or accept a tenant of Jewish law, tashmishei kedushah (implements of holiness), established by Maimonides. Such Torah decorations as rimmonim can be sold only to purchase replacements or, under dire circumstances, to ransom hostages or aid the poor. 

The recently concluded trial is also deeply upsetting because of its failure to acknowledge a profound debt that each congregation owes its sister. Jeshuat Israel would never have been allowed to use Touro Synagogue – let alone grow and thrive – without Shearith Israel’s permission, encouragement and protection. Likewise, Shearith Israel would have remained merely the custodian of a cherished but empty building without a new congregation that restored and replenished its holiness.

There is sufficient reason to believe that – some day – both congregations may again need one other. Through necessity or divine guidance, each could be strengthened by the legacy that once brought and bound them together.

GEORGE GOODWIN, a member of Temple Beth-El in Providence and a specialist in synagogue architecture, wrote a lengthy article about rimmonim in the 2015 issue of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.