America’s 1st Jewish congregation & oldest synagogue fight over sale of Torah finial bells

Synagogue sells Colonial-era bells to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for $7.4m but congregation says both the synagogue & bells belongs to them.


Mediation has failed in lawsuits between the oldest U.S. synagogue and the country’s first Jewish congregation over ownership issues.

The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island

The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. – Photo: Swampyank at en.wikipedia

Lawyers for the leaders of New York City’s Congregation Shearith Israel and Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island tell The Associated Press they were unable to agree during mediation overseen by a federal judge. The lawsuits will now move forward.

The dispute started after leaders at Touro agreed to sell a set of Colonial-era Torah finial bells for $7.4 million to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Leaders of the New York congregation opposed the sale, saying it owns Touro and the bells.

The lawsuits center on who owns the synagogue, a National Historic Site that is visited by tens of thousands of people every year. Touro was established four years after Congregation Shearith Israel was established in 1654 in New York.

David Bazarsky / AP

A set of 18th century Torah finial bells are seen on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, on Nov. 13, 2012. A disagreement over the ownership of the bells has prompted lawsuits. – Photo: David Bazarsky / AP

In 1822, the last Jewish resident left Newport, and Touro fell into disrepair. Some items, including Torah scrolls and possibly the bells, were transferred to the New York congregation.

Touro reopened in the late 1800s, and in 1903, the Newport congregation signed a $1-per-year lease to rent Touro from Congregation Shearith Israel.

Congregation Shearith Israel opposes the sale of the bells, saying it violates religious practice and will remove ownership of the bells from the Jewish community. The New York congregation also seeks to remove the Newport congregation from practicing at Touro, saying it is violating the terms of the lease.

Touro’s leaders say Congregation Shearith Israel is only a trustee for the Newport synagogue and can’t dictate what is done there.

Touro this year is celebrating its 250th anniversary. On Sunday, it will hold its annual reading of a now-famous 1790 letter George Washington wrote to the Jewish community in Newport affirming the new nation’s dedication to religious tolerance, saying it “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan will be the keynote speaker.


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