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Attorney general sides with Rhode Island synagogue

November 16, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The attorney general of Rhode Island asked the U.S. Supreme Court Friday to review and reverse a lower court’s decision that gave a New York congregation control of Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue and a set of bells valued in the millions.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin filed a friend of the court brief arguing that the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals committed a legal error by not following or even referencing any Rhode Island law on charitable trusts, which is binding on a federal court in this type of case.

Touro Synagogue in Newport is the oldest synagogue in the U.S., dating to 1763. Congregation Jeshuat Israel currently worships there.

“Touro Synagogue represents an important piece of Rhode Island history and should be held in a charitable trust with the Newport Jewish congregation as the beneficiary,” Kilmartin said in a statement.

Congregation Shearith Israel, based in Manhattan and the nation’s oldest Jewish congregation, became trustee of Touro after Jews left Newport in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Congregation Jeshuat Israel has worshipped there since the late 1800s, and the sides have periodically fought since then over who controls Touro.

The circuit court last year found that the Manhattan congregation controls Touro under terms of an agreement struck amid one such power struggle in 1903.

The Newport congregation argues the appeals court’s decision ignored other evidence from the trial. The congregation asked the nation’s highest court to review the ruling last month.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide whether or not to consider the case.

Lou Solomon, a lawyer for the New York congregation, said the circuit court’s ruling was clear and correct.

“We have great respect for the office of the attorney general of Rhode Island, but in this matter of litigation we couldn’t disagree with him more,” Solomon said.

The lawsuit began when the Newport congregation, which has struggled with money, came up with a plan to sell one of its two sets of Colonial-era Torah bells, called rimonim, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $7.4 million. The New York congregation objected, arguing the sale would violate religious law.

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