Who Owns the Oldest Synagogue Building in the United States?

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Touro Synagogue, Newport, R.I.

A federal court just ruled that Congregation Shearith Israel (Manhattan, 1654), the oldest Jewish congregation in America, owns Touro Synagogue (Newport, R.I.), the oldest synagogue building (1763) in America.

Find out more by reading Sharon Otterman’s story at The New York Times.

Here is a taste:

Two Jewish synagogues consider themselves the oldest in the nation, for different reasons. Shearith Israel, founded in Manhattan in 1654, is the oldest congregation, though it is not located in its original building. Touro Synagogue, in Newport, R.I., built in 1763, is the oldest synagogue building.

But now a federal court has ruled that Shearith Israel in New York actually owns the Touro Synagogue building in Newport, the result of twists in a history spanning centuries.

Justice David H. Souter, the retired associate justice of the Supreme Court, wrote the opinion for the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston issued on Wednesday. In it, he overturned a district-court ruling that the congregation that has worshiped for more than 130 years in the Touro Synagogue building, Jeshuat Israel, had control over the building and its objects.

The appeals court instead enforced a series of contracts between the two congregations from the 20th century, in which Jeshuat Israel acknowledged that it was leasing the Newport building. Now, what may be the country’s most historic synagogue building — which George Washington visited in 1790, inspiring an important letter on religious freedom — is officially owned by a group that is based 180 miles away.

The reasons are complicated. When Newport’s Jews faced persecution during the American Revolution, they fled the town and the synagogue building, many for New York. Without a congregation in Newport, Shearith Israel took control of the synagogue, along with the sacred ritual objects with which the congregants fled. Among the objects was a pair of decorative knobs with attached bells made of silver and gold designed to top the shafts around which the Torah scrolls were rolled.

Read the rest here.