Eviction of congregation from nation’s oldest synagogue ‘shameful and egregious,’ says Cicilline
NEWPORT, R.I. (WLNE)- A Jewish congregation in New York filed a motion at the end of January to evict Rhode Island congregants who worship at the nation’s oldest synagogue.
New York-based Congregation Shearith Israel, which leased Touro Synagogue to Newport’s Jeshuat Israel, has filed proceeding to evict the congregation.
Congregation Jeshuat Israel has called Touro Synagogue their home for 140 years, and their co-president says this may mean the end of their congregation.
“I think we are very upset. We are shocked. At this time when the Jewish community across the country is undergoing attacks from outside, we are really even more upset by an attack from within,” says Congregation Jeshuat Israel Co-President Louise-Ellen Teitz.
The local group has called Touro Synagogue their home for 140 years, but the building itself is owned by Shearith Israel.
“Through a historical accident basically, they came to own the building. And they do own the building and we are tenants. They have decided they want to gain control over the congregation. And the building, but more the congregation. And they have filed to evict us,” says Teitz.
The synagogue is full of history, and has drawn visitors from all over the nation.
“We get visitors and probably our most early famous visitor was George Washington. He came here and this is where he addressed his letter to the Hebrew congregation in Newport and guaranteed religious freedom before the Bill of Rights and First Ammendment.”
The controversy has now gained attention of state leaders like Congressman David Cicilline.
Cicilline released a statement saying, “The filing of official eviction proceedings against the Congregation in the District Court of Rhode Island is shameful and egregious.”
The congregation has maintained and supported the building for decades.
Teitz says that while the site has national historical value, it also means a lot to the local Jewish community, and they do not want to see it turned into a museum.
“They want to say they’re not evicting us, that we are still welcome here, but they filed a lawsuit to evict us and the congregation is its members, so evicting the congregation is evicting its members. What we’re really concerned about is losing our traditions, our community, our rabbi,” says Teitz.
“The recent proceeding commenced by Shearith Israel seeks to change the Board overseeing day-to-day activities at Touro Synagogue. No congregants are being evicted. No congregant will EVER be evicted. Shearith Israel also hopes the current Rabbi of Touro will consider staying, as he is very welcome.” Barbara Reiss, Executive Director of Shearith Israel Congregation said, “Ritual services will remain the same. Congregation Shearith Israel is exercising the rights clearly granted it by the final court decision against CJI. Our disagreement is solely with a few members of the CJI Board, and we wish to restructure the group overseeing day-to-day activities of Touro Synagogue to restore the trust and confidence that has historically existed, for close to 200 years, between Shearith Israel and Touro Synagogue.