The Jewish trial of the century has just concluded. The trial pitted the oldest American Jewish community against the oldest American synagogue. At stake was the legacy of America’s Colonial era Jews. The oldest remaining synagogue building in (what is today) the United States is the Touro Synagogue and it is located in Newport, R.I. Newport is now mostly a tourist town, though it once contained one of British America’s most important ports. It was during British times that Newport’s Jewish community grew to 500 souls, which prompted them to build their stunning synagogue in 1763. It was a Spanish & Portuguese (S&P) congregation, as were all of the other synagogues in colonial America. The synagogue was modelled after its mother synagogue, Bevis Marks Synagogue of London, built in 1701, though with a colonial aesthetic.
Following the American Revolution the importance of Newport waned, and most of its Jewish inhabitants moved away. So for nearly 200 years, since the synagogue officially closed in 1820, the synagogue has been under the trusteeship of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York, America’s oldest Jewish congregation, established in 1654. All of that changed, however, this past week when John J. McConnell, Jr., United States District Judge in R.I., ruled Shearith Israel unfit, and transferred control of the Touro synagogue and its contents to Jeshuat Israel, the congregation that currently prays in the Touro Synagogue.
In Colonial times religious institutions could not incorporate, and so individuals acted as trustees. The Touro synagogue’s original trustees were Jacob Rodrigues Rivera, Moses Levy, and Isaac Hart. The judge relied heavily on Rivera’s will (1789) in determining the case. Rivera wrote in his will that the purpose of the trust was “to act for the sole Use, benefit and behoof of the Jewish Society in Newport, to be for them reserved as a Place of Public Worship forever.” Rivera’s ‘place of pubic worship forever,’ played an important role in the court case.
Historically speaking, despite Rivera’s ‘forever,’ the last Jews left Newport in 1820. To preserve the synagogue and its ritual objects they transferred the trust to Shearith Israel in New York. From then until the 1880s the synagogue was rarely ever used. In the 1880s Ashkenazi Jews began moving into Newport and requested the use of the synagogue building. Shearith Israel granted it, but arranged for Rabbi Abraham Pereira Mendes to move from London to become their rabbi.
Since that time the congregation at Touro (named Jeshuat Israel, as opposed to the original congregation at Touro which was called Yeshuat Israel) has admirably cared for itself, while Shearith Israel retained their role as ultimate protector. Four years ago, however, the congregation attempted to sell one of the synagogue’s sets of historic Torah bells (rimonim). The Myer Myers bells were crafted in the 1760s, and have been a part of the synagogue collection since that time. The Jewish community of Newport is unfortunately dwindling once again. In court papers the congregation insists that they are “one unforeseen expense away from financial disaster.” Therefore, in an effort to prop up their finances and create an endowment they arranged to sell the rimonim to the Boston Museum of Fine Art for over 7 million dollars. That is when Shearith Israel asserted itself to stop the sale, claiming that the congregation at Touro lacked the right to relinquish the rimonim.
In a somewhat surprising decision, the judge overturned the two century old relationship. He rejected Shearith Israel’s claims, and then even removed them as trustees of the synagogue. Instead, the judge ruled that the congregation at Touro should be considered the heirs of the original congregation. The judge argued that the will of Rivera drove his ruling. Rivera had said that the purpose of his original trusteeship was that Touro should be ‘reserved as a place of public worship forever.’ Above all else, the judge insisted that the purpose of Touro is to be a place of worship. As a result, the judge argued that Shearith Israel’s interference with the conduct of the congregation contradicted their original role as trustees, and so he therefore negated it. As a result, the Touro congregation is now in full possession of the building and its religious contents, with the full right to do with them as they please – even to sell them.
Despite the logic of the judge’s decision, the irony is that the ultimate outcome of his ruling may actually result in the exact opposite of his objective. Touro, as a failing congregation, will likely now sell off some of its items to sustain itself. In so doing, the congregation will break apart one of the great symbols of Anglo-American Jewish History. Alas, was not protecting the integrity of the site the original mission of Shearith Israel? It is a mission they fulfilled for over a century, and it is needed now more than ever. Rivera wished that Touro be preserved as a place of worship, not that it be ‘dismantled’ in the process.
The Touro Synagogue holds a special place in my heart. I visited there in the summer of 2009. My experience there inspired me to take the position of Educational Director at Shearith Israel which I held for six years. That led me to pursue a PhD in the history of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews, and ultimately to become the rabbi of Bevis Marks this year, the mother congregation of both Touro and Shearith Israel. It is upsetting to see one’s children in conflict. They are both so special, inextricably bound by history and heritage.
In many ways Shearith Israel is the spiritual heir to Touro, whether or not they own the Touro synagogue. With their exquisitely maintained Spanish and Portuguese services and traditions, they truly maintain Rivera’s dream of continuous worship.
The congregation at Touro has taken great care of Touro. They constructed a visitor centre, and they run regular tours, while assisting summer visitors. They have a rabbi and conduct services. I think we can all applaud their care and investment. However, I hope that Jeshuat Israel will rethink its plans. Touro is a site of national and religious significance, one that attracts many thousands of visitors a year, as well as other supporters. I therefore ask their leadership to reconsider. I find it difficult to accept that there aren’t other ways for such a venerable institution to raise funds, whether from tourism or philanthropy. As a rabbi at another historic synagogue that faces many of Touro’s same challenges I know that it is possible. Indeed, the more the community dissolves its heritage, the less attractive the synagogue becomes as a destination.
I pray that the two congregations find a way to collaborate to keep the traditions and religious objects of Touro alive. Perhaps separated they can actually work better together. It would be wonderful if each year, say once a month from May through August, Touro conducted shabbat with the original S&P service. Nothing is more inspiring than praying in an historic S&P synagogue together with the original melodies and traditions of the S&P Jews. Touro could partner with some of the remaining S&P congregations, such as Shearith Israel in New York, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, Talmud Tora in Amsterdam, and even with me at Bevis Marks in London for each of those weekends. In this way visitors and locals alike would be able to enjoy the Touro synagogue as it was originally used. This authentic experience would attract even more visitors, and allow the broader S&P world (historic and current) to work together to keep Touro intact and alive – a true fulfilment of Rivera’s ‘forever.’