Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Three Federal Lawsuits Focus On Ownership Of Rhode Island Synagogue's Historic Torah Ornaments

AP reported Monday on three interrelated lawsuits over a proposed sale of Torah finial bells by Newport, Rhode Island's historic Touro Synagogue.  The Torah adornments (known in Hebrew as rimonim) were made in the 1760's or 1770's by a Colonial silversmith.  In 2010, leaders of Touro Synagogue decided to try to sell the rimonim to endow a trust for maintenance of the historic synagogue and keeping a rabbi in residence, while assuring that the rimonim could be viewed by the public.  The rimonim are currently on loan to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts which offered to purchase them for $7.4 million. However, New York City's Congregation Shearith Israel claims that it owns Touro Synagogue, and it opposes the sale. In the mid-1800's Touro Synagogue fell into disrepair and Shearith Israel claims it took ownership of the synagogue, its cemetery and ritual objects.  Leaders of Touro Synagogue say that Shearith Israel merely become trustee for Touro.  In 1903, Touro signed a lease to rent its building from Shearith Israel for $1 per year. Now each side has filed suit in Rhode Island federal district court and Shearith Israel has also filed suit in federal district court in New York.  Shearith Israel wants the congregation removed from the Newport building because it says the congregation is violating the terms of the $1 per year lease by attempting to make the sale.  Touro wants the Massachusetts attorney general, as administrator of charitable trusts, to intervene. Meanwhile, the Museum of Fine Arts has withdrawn its offer to purchase the rimonim until the ownership issue is settled. A Rhode Island federal judge has scheduled a settlement conference in the litigation for tomorrow. Apparently a long-term lease of the rimonim to the museum is a possible compromise.