Oldest U.S. Synagogue Property Dispute Ruling Saves the Bell

By George Khoury, Esq. on August 04, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a case that has roots going back centuries, the fight over the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, reached a turning point this week when the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Congregation Shearith Israel properly owned the synagogue and its bells.

In issuing their ruling, the First Circuit reversed the lower district court that had ruled in favor of Congregation Jeshuat Israel. This case has been closely followed for the local, and special, interests that surround such a historic landmark.

The Building and the Bells and Whistles

The Touro Synagogue was was built in 1763. In 1946, it was designated as an official historic site. Notably, George Washington himself visited the synagogue in 1790. The historic bells that adorn the synagogue, which date back to its construction, are valued in the millions of dollars. In fact, the sale of the bells is what prompted this lawsuit.

When the Congregation Jeshuat Israel wanted to sell the bells, a deal worth $7.4 million, Congregation Shearith Israel sued claiming ownership of the land, building, and bells. Unfortunately, the First Circuit found that under a 1903 agreement, Congregation Shearith Israel actually owned the building and bells, and that the other congregation was merely a tenant.

Is This the Closing Bell?

Representatives from the Congregation Shearith were pleased with the decision, which effectively prevents the sale of the historic bell. And while the congregation looks forward to working more closely with their tenant, the legal battle may not be over.

The next steps for this legal battle would either involve requesting an en banc rehearing in the First Circuit, or requesting an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Given the value of the bells that come with the property, it's likely both requests will be made.

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