Politics

Inside the fierce battle over America’s oldest synagogue – The Forward

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

Jewish communities are no strangers to bitter political battles involving their places of worship – hence the famous joke about two Jews and three synagogues.

But few shul feuds have the historic reach and impact of the extended and emotional battle over Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue building in the United States, built in 1763.

Touro’s congregation in Newport, Congregation Jeshuat Israel (known as CJI), is being evicted from the place its members have worshipped for over a century by the building’s owners: Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, which happens to be the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, founded in 1654.

Leading the struggle on the two sides are two determined lawyers who see themselves as stewards of Touro’s legacy and future, and their counterpart as putting its future in danger.

Louis M. Solomon, president of the board of trustees of Congregation Shearith Israel – New York’s storied Spanish and Portuguese synagogue – speaks in soft-spoken yet intense tones in an interview in a conference room in his Manhattan law firm.

He visibly winces at the use of the word “eviction” and has disliked its use since the story broke of the action filed at Rhode Island State District Court by his 450-member synagogue against the 150-member CJI. But as a lawyer, he acknowledges that the facts are difficult to sugarcoat: a landlord, Shearith Israel, told its tenant, Jeshuat Israel, that it no longer wants it on the property and it must “vacate the building.”

“We own Touro Synagogue, they are a holdover lessee – they have no rights to it other than as a lessee, and they can be asked to leave. And that, in fact, is what’s happened,” he says.

At the same time, Solomon bends over backward to emphasize that as individuals, “no Jew will be locked out” of the building or forbidden to worship there. “The notion that we are trying to evict Jeshuat Israel congregants or their rabbi is totally untrue,” he asserts. “We are evicting the corporate entity of CJI,” whose leadership, in his view, has proven to be an unreliable steward of its historic home and refused to cooperate and communicate with the owner of the property, his congregation.

In Rhode Island, Louise Ellen Teitz – co-president of CJI and a law professor at Roger Williams University – scoffs at Solomon’s attempt to make a distinction between the “entity” of her congregations and its individuals and rabbi. She believes Solomon’s efforts, if successful, will turn Touro into a “museum or a New York annex” – its ties to the local Jewish community weakened and eventually severed.

The two attorneys are unflinching in their polite but relentlessly negative characterizations of one another. Solomon paints CJI as a small, aging and “dying congregation” led by a small group, with Teitz at the helm, that is “bullying” its community into an ongoing refusal to acknowledge the implications of a District Court ruling in 2017.

That ruling established Shearith Israel’s ownership of CJI’s most precious asset: the synagogue and its contents. The decision clarified CJI’s position as a tenant holding a lease that expired in 1913, and has not been renewed since.

Solomon contends that since that ruling, he has done all he could to reach out in good faith to CJI – but has been rebuffed. This, and what he sees as evidence of negligence on the part of the Newport congregation to protect the synagogue and its historic cemetery, is what drove him and his board to file the eviction notice, he says.

He envisions a new congregational entity for the Newport community with a board comprised of current CJI members, but also including representatives of Shearith Israel and other interested parties, to chart a course for Touro’s future.

Teitz, for her part, sees Solomon as using Shearith’s leverage as landlord to illegitimately interfere in the life of Newport’s Jewish community and monetize the historic value of a place he and his congregation have not actively contributed or supported for over a century – a period spanning decades when CJI members, including members of her own family, worked tirelessly to maintain it.

$7.5 million decorations

The stand-off is the outgrowth of a bitter legal dispute that began a decade ago, when Shearith Israel sought to block the Newport congregation’s attempt to sell the synagogue’s most valuable ritual objects: 18th-century bell decorations that top the Torah known as rimonim, crafted by a renowned silversmith.

At the time, “we realized that the congregation was getting smaller,” Teitz says. “And we also realized we needed to figure out a way to create a permanent endowment – because while our the building is wonderful, what also makes it special is the fact that since the 1880s it has had a local congregation, has been open for worship and continues to be part of the local community and not just a museum.”

The future of the congregation, she believed, was more valuable than a second set of decorative bells.

When Shearith Israel learned of the brewing deal to sell the rimonim to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (where they were already on display) for nearly $7.5 million, they objected strenuously, sparking the five-year court fight. The matter landed in court, litigating not only ownership of the rimonim but of the entire synagogue and its contents – essentially, Shearith Israel’s claim to ownership.

The complex and intertwined relationship between Manhattan’s Shearith Israel and Newport’s Touro Synagogue, designed by renowned architect Peter Harrison and funded by Newport Jews in 1763, was intertwined from the start. The Sephardi Jewish merchants of the colonial era, who first came to North America in the 1600s, moved between the two cities: the cemeteries in Newport and Manhattan share names like Lopez, Mendes and Rivera.

Touro’s importance in U.S. history as a monument to religious freedom is tied to an exchange of letters between the warden of the congregation, Moses Seixas, and George Washington, in which the country’s first president vowed that the U.S. government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” following a visit to Newport and the synagogue in 1790.

Each year, Jeshuat Israel holds a public reading of the letter on the anniversary of Washington’s visit, and the spot in the sanctuary where he sat holds a place of honor.

The synagogue’s decline began after the American Revolution and the War of 1812 took a toll on Newport’s standing as a shipping center.

Members of the community left the area for more thriving trading centers and, beginning in the 1820s, Touro Synagogue was abandoned as a synagogue without Jews. It remained so for 60 years: the building was closed and its ritual objects given for safekeeping to Shearith Israel.

The synagogue is named for two Touro brothers, Judah and Abraham – Newport natives who created an ongoing trust under the care of the local government to pay for the upkeep of the building, its cemetery and a bequest for a community rabbi to serve the future “Hebrew society of Newport” when such a society returned.

The Torah and ritual objects were given to Shearith Israel for safekeeping and the New York congregation was officially deemed steward of the property, which is the basis of the court ruling.

The current fight between Shearith Israel and Jeshuat Israel echoes a similar battle that broke out when Jews returned to Newport at the end of the 19th century. Ashkenazi Jews of German descent and then a wave of Eastern European Jews repopulated the city beginning in the 1880s, and demanded the trustees at Shearith Israel open the gates. Even back then, local Jews wanted control over their congregational life and building, and the Shearith Israel landlords took their stewardship role seriously and imposed limitations.

The friction climaxed when local Jews broke into the building, holding a famous sit-in in 1902, and the two sides fought the first court battle over control of the synagogue.

The matter was negotiated out of court and settled in 1903 with a symbolic lease in which the newly established congregation of Jeshuat Israel would pay the building’s trustees at Shearith Israel a symbolic dollar each year, and committed to various conditions – including the employment of an Orthodox rabbi who would conduct services in a traditional Sephardi tradition.

That lease was extended for another five years in 1908. But it was never formally extended after it lapsed in 1913, though the Newporters continued to pay their yearly dollar rent.

Over the decades, Jeshuat Israel saw the building as its pride and responsibility. Teitz says her grandmother moved to Newport in 1902 and grew up in the synagogue, and her father was the president as she was growing up. None of the 20th- and 21st-century maintenance work or improvements sparked any involvement or financial support from Shearith Israel, she notes.

In fact, when a major multimillion dollar restoration effort was undertaken in the early 2000s, “not only wouldn’t they help, they wouldn’t even let us use their mailing list to solicit their members individually,” Teitz charges. “They were never willing to help. We have always taken care of everything.”

Seasonal attraction

Help did come from donors like philanthropist John Loeb, who donated millions to buy an adjacent plot of land and set up a visitor center with a small museum as a base for tours of the synagogue and educational programs centered around the ideals of religious liberty.

Jeshuat Israel’s struggle to survive as an active Orthodox congregation meeting the terms of the lease was palpable on a Shabbat morning in May.

As services began at 8:45 A.M., only a handful of worshippers were on hand. Slowly, people straggled in over the next half hour until a minyan, the minimum number of men needed for Orthodox worship, had arrived.

The small group included local congregants, but without a healthy injection of visiting tourists – who had registered in advance on the synagogue’s website – a minyan would have been much harder to achieve. A popular summer destination, the synagogue fills in the summer months and empties as the weather cools.

As the group waited for a minyan, Rabbi Marc Mandel, a soft-spoken New Yorker, deftly kept the congregation occupied by connecting them with Jewish geography: who knows who, who went to camp with whom, who had attended friends’ weddings and bar mitzvahs in Los Angeles, Cape Town and Ra’anana.

Finally, a minyan achieved, he launched into prayer. Neither Teitz nor the majority of her fellow congregants at Jeshuat Israel are practicing Orthodox Jews. However, respect for tradition and keeping to the terms of the 1903 lease and the Touro bequest have kept the congregation Orthodox – including gender separation, making it extremely challenging to recruit younger members of the Jewish community – though Teitz says with pride that their Hebrew school currently has 15 children enrolled.

With its location in the pricey historic neighborhood of Newport, a practicing Orthodox Jew who has to walk to synagogue would have to be extremely wealthy to afford local housing. The Jews who move to the area in Rhode Island bristle at the idea of gender-separated seating, and the fact that the non-Jewish spouses of worshippers cannot be members.

Both Solomon and Teitz claim that in 2019, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Shearith Israel’s ownership rights by refusing to take the case, they intended to move beyond their bitter legal battle and work together to find a way forward.

But Solomon says he was quickly dissatisfied: a request for the synagogue’s inventory was repeatedly rebuffed by Teitz, he alleges. “There was no transparency” regarding the congregation’s finances vis-à-vis the building. Moreover, he adds, he was hit with a request of “between $2 million to $5 million” for unspecified renovations.

Teitz counters that she was unhappy with the fact Solomon and Shearith appeared to have no intention of drafting a new long-term lease that would give Jeshuat Israel a formal right to remain in the building.

“They weren’t and aren’t willing to give us a long-term lease,” she says. “They want us to be a holdover tenant indefinitely.”

This tenuous status cuts the congregation off at the knees, she argues, and even raising money for minor repairs is difficult at the moment.

“We wanted to raise $90,000, just to do some painting and minor work,” she recounts. “And people said, ‘Wait a minute, if [Shearith Israel] owns the building, why should we pay for this? In the past, we knew Shearith’s claim – but we stepped up and always took care of it and paid for things. The difference was that we never expected there was any chance we wouldn’t be there long-term. It’s hard to ask people to give money when we can be turned out tomorrow.”

For Solomon, the last straw came in the spring of 2021 when he learned that a gravestone for John Loeb, the multimillionaire businessman who had underwritten the visitor center – and was still alive – had been installed in the historic cemetery that predates the synagogue, in clear contravention of Jewish tradition.

When he called Teitz, alarmed, she said she had been unaware the stone had been put in the cemetery, he recounts. The agreement to allow Loeb to be buried there had taken place in the 1990s and Teitz had green-lighted preparatory work in terms of measuring and ensuring the space where Loeb would be buried was appropriate. She said that as soon as she was made aware that a gravestone had been lowered by crane into the graveyard, she immediately asked that it be removed.

Solomon did not believe Teitz had been unaware that the stone was being installed. For him, it showed the existing CJI leadership could not be trusted with Touro’s legacy.

Teitz recognized the gravestone episode as a misstep and apologized for it, but charges that it was being used as a “pretense” by Solomon for the eviction procedure.

“It was basically a subterfuge for getting what he really wanted,” she says.

‘Maybe I’ll be called a traitor’

Solomon says his plan is to populate Touro with a new congregation, which would include and embrace CJI’s current members – but with a board that would include Shearith Israel members.

He believes Touro could thrive and become a desirable destination for visitors around the world, particularly if Shearith Israel deploys its “rock star” rabbi, Meir Soloveichik, to Newport on a regular basis.

“There is no reason in the nice months between May and October that this place shouldn’t be full of scholars and students. Why are they not going there? Why are we not charging for it? Why? Why is this congregation claiming to have financial problems when you have a gem of a synagogue. … There was no reason they ever needed to sell precious ritual objects to be able to support themselves,” he claims,

Teitz says Solomon is sorely mistaken if he thinks he can evict her congregation “as an entity” from its building but then retain the individuals. If the congregation isn’t welcome in the synagogue, their rabbi will hold services in the annex it owns.

“We strongly believe we need to remain two separate congregations,” she says. Giving Shearith members seats on her board is something she might consider if a formal lease was on the table, but without one it is out of the question.

Alongside Solomon’s tough action in court, he also launched a charm offensive, inviting congregation members to New York last month – eight of them responded, including Teitz’s co-president, Paul Tobak.

Tobak is less emphatic than his fellow leader. He sees how his congregation is aging and what Solomon is offering, and it doesn’t look so bad to him. “They’re talking about holding world-class events, lectures and doing things that would draw people to us and that we don’t have the staff to organize. You have to be hard-pressed not to see the benefits of what they are offering. Maybe I’ll be called a traitor for saying this, but the members of Shearith couldn’t have been nicer and more respectful.”

While he is not happy about the court decision, Tobak says he prefers to look at the glass half-full. “Why wouldn’t we be enthusiastic about [Shearith Israel]? They have resources that we don’t. We’re struggling with our costs – particularly in this time when every synagogue needs security.”

Ultimately, Tobak foresees more days in court ahead. The next hearing on the eviction case, which the Newport congregation has moved to block, is at the end of June. “Only if a formal mediation is successful or if the courts clarify the landlord-tenant relationship – maybe [then] we can rebuild trust with each other,” he says. “But I do think it’s important that the courts have their say, because I think there’s confusion by some people as to exactly what this landlord-tenant relationship means. It needs to be clarified.”

Despite his belief that Solomon is “sincere” in saying he would be welcome to continue to pray in the synagogue where his children were bar mitzvahed if the eviction of CJI plays out, Tobak knows where his loyalties lie.

“I know where my commitment is. I’m co-president of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, not of Touro Synagogue. If our congregants and our rabbi move across the street or anywhere else, that’s where I’ll be too.”

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.



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