Last night the nation’s oldest synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, won its long legal battle to keep ownership of the nation’s oldest synagogue building and centuries-old sacred Jewish artifacts. In Congregation Jeshuat Israel v. Congregation Shearith Israel, the court ruled that Shearith Israel’s contracts were enforceable in court, just like any other contract.
The ruling by the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston states that Congregation Shearith Israel of Manhattan, the nation’s oldest synagogue, has sole ownership of the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island, the nation’s oldest synagogue building. Written by retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, the opinion declares that Shearith Israel owns both the synagogue building and colonial-era Jewish ritual objects in the synagogue. The opinion adopts the argument of a friend-of-the-court brief Becket filed on behalf of Shearith Israel.
“Synagogues should get their day in court, just like any other American,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at Becket, a non-profit religious liberty law firm. “This is an important victory for the rights of religious groups to establish enforceable contracts just like any other property owner.”
Shearith Israel was founded in 1654 in New York by Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing persecution. In the late 1700s, Shearith Israel took ownership of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island when the original Jewish congregation fled British colonial rulers. In the late 1800s, Jeshuat Israel, a newly-formed Jewish congregation, began leasing the Touro Synagogue from Shearith Israel, paying rent of one dollar a year. A few years ago, Jeshuat Israel decided to sell the synagogue’s ancient Torah scroll ornaments called rimonim to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But Shearith Israel believed that selling the artifacts would violate both Jewish law and Jeshuat Israel’s lease agreement, which agrees to respect Shearith Israel’s ownership of the property. Jeshuat Israel then sued Shearith Israel, seeking ownership of both the rimonim and the Touro Synagogue itself.
Last year, a federal district court in Providence ruled against Shearith Israel, saying that they were not the owners of the rimonim or the Touro Synagogue, giving control of both to Jeshuat Israel instead. Shearith Israel appealed. Last year, Becket filed an friend-of-the-court brief urging the appeals court to allow religious groups to settle disputes themselves using binding legal agreements like other property owners. Yesterday the court adopted Becket’s arguments that contracts showing Shearith Israel’s ownership should be enforced.