It’s a Friday evening and the setting sun paints a glow on the facade of Touro Synagogue in Newport. It’s the traditional Shabbat service, and recording is not allowed in the building. Men and women enter through separate doors and take their seats on two different levels for the Orthodox service. The women’s balcony has a sweeping view of the synagogue and a large glass window that frames a lavender sky, tinged with pink after sunset.

Congregant Gail “Bailey” Siletchnik says it’s scenes like this that are deeply woven into her memories of Touro Synagogue.

"When I look outside toward the harbor, from the second floor, where the women sit, I think of my grandmother and … my great grandmother looking out at the same view. Now, of course, a lot of things have changed, like some of the buildings, but the view, and the view of the horizon, view of the harbor is very similar. And I think of them and I feel connected.”

Siletchnik is a board member of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which has been worshiping in the synagogue since the late 1800s. The synagogue dates back to 1763 and is the oldest in the United States. The synagogue's history is marked by disputes between different congregations, impacted by wars in the U.S. and abroad. 

For the past 10 years, the local congregation and a congregation in New York City have been in a legal fight over who owns the land, the building and associated property. The most recent strife stems from the local congregation’s decision to sell antique silver bells that sit atop the Torah at the synagogue. The New York group said the Newport congregation did not own the precious objects and the sale of them violated their religious tenets. That disagreement led to a long and acrimonious battle in state and federal court

“I do want to say that what has happened over the last few years has caused a lot of strife. And it’s broken my heart because it has destroyed friendships that I’ve had with people, including one person for five decades," Siletchnik says.

"The reality, too, is that it’s really not a good look, for us to be Jews fighting Jews. In fact, we call it Shonda. It’s a big embarrassment…I’m just devastated and heartbroken.”

The New York congregation is called Congregation Shearith Israel, meaning salvation. It’s the oldest congregation in the United States and observes Orthodox Sephardic traditions that originate in Spain and the Middle East. It says it’s the rightful owner of Touro Synagogue, and the Newport congregation has been tenants with a lease agreement since 1903. 

A Rhode Island Superior Court judge agreed with the New York congregation; and, in an August decision, ruled that Congregation Shearith Israel could evict the Newport group from the building. Louis Solomon is the president of Congregation Shearith Israel and a lawyer who has represented the congregation in court.

“It is one of the most unfortunate episodes I have personally been involved with. I have been involved from the beginning of the very rapid and public decline,” Solomon says.

Solomon emphasizes that his congregation will not evict the worshippers. They are evicting the board members and seeking new stewards for the synagogue. They already have another congregation and board ready to move in: Congregation Ahavath Israel. The new congregation was founded in Newport earlier this year and has ties to an Orthodox congregation that began worshiping elsewhere in Newport more than a century ago.

“I firmly believe that this transition will be quite easy and quite seamless,” Solomon says.

The co-presidents of the Newport congregation — Michael Pimental and Louise Ellen Teitz –- declined to comment and issued a statement instead. They said they were saddened to be facing eviction from a synagogue their congregation cared for, restored and worshiped at for nearly 140 years.

Some local congregants in Newport say they’re prepared to remain at the synagogue regardless of who is running it. Aaron Ginsburg grew up in Newport and lives in Massachusetts now. But he returns to Touro regularly to worship. He says he understands the judge’s reasons for approving the eviction, and he accepts the decision.

“I will worship at Touro Synagogue no matter what the title name of the new congregation. That’s where I’ve been going…for almost my entire life. So I am not, well, I’m not stopping," Ginsburg says.

The judge will rule on Thursday whether to delay the eviction longer, or allow it to move forward.

Either way, the president of the New York congregation says they will wait until after the observance of the upcoming Jewish High Holy Days before they proceed with the eviction.

The age of Touro Synagogue was incorrect. The story has been edited to reflect the correct date of 1763.