Ironically, it may take the highest secular court in America — the Supreme Court — to decide who owns its oldest shul in a case that highlights historic tensions between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities.
That scenario became a real possibility after an appeals court in New York ruled that the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island — and all the ritual objects within — belonged to Shearith Israel, a Sephardi Orthodox congregation based in Manhattan.
The ruling reversed an earlier one last year by the New York District Court which judged that Jeshuat Israel, an Ashkenazi Orthodox congregation founded in 1881 that prays at the Touro site, was the rightful owner.
The Touro Synagogue was built in 1763, but this latest litigation between the two congregations (their disputes go back more than a century) began in 2011, when they locked horns over the sale of priceless silver Torah ornaments valued in the millions of dollars.
The Sephardi Shearith Israel has held legal title to the Touro for about 200 years, even though its congregants daven in Manhattan, while the Ashkenazi Jeshuat Israel is the congregation that actually prays at the Touro.