U.S. District Court Judge Jack McConnell, in a decision released today, has ruled that Newport’s Touro Synagogue, the nation’s oldest synagogue, and its historic religious bells will remain under control of the Newport congregation.
In a 106-page opinion that relies on historical documents that date to the Colonial era, McConnell said the crucial issue was the intention of of the community of Jews who founded the synagogue in 1763, while Rhode Island was still a British colony.
"The central issue here is the legacy of some of the earliest Jewish settlers in North America, who desired to make Newport a permanent haven for public Jewish worship,’’ wrote McConnell.
McConnell’s decision came after a nine-day trial last year. Besides stewardship of the historic Newport building visited by thousands of tourists every year, is the fate of a pair of ceremonial bells, called rimonim, that are estimated to be to be worth more than $7 million.
When the Newport congregation was searching for ways to pay bills and raise money for an endowment, its leaders proposed selling one set of the bells to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for $7.4 million.
That plan was challenged by New York City’s Congregation Shearith Isreal, the nation’s oldest such congregation, which asserted that such a sale would breach its religious beliefs. McConnell decided against the New York congregation. Lawyers for the New York group said they have not decided whether to appeal.
Touro synagogue is a national historic site. Newport was home to one of North America’s earliest Jewish settlements, which was a testament to the view of religion freedom and separation of church and state fostered by Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s first white settler. Jews were denied citizenship rights in many countries, but in Rhode Island, they received full citizenship 150 years before they were granted such rights in England.
In 1790, George Washington spoke at Touro. He later sent the congregation a message stating that the new United States government, "gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’’ That sentiment is considered a founding pledge of religious liberty in the new nation.