Newport, RI – Rift Between Oldest Synagogue, Jewish Congregation

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FILE - A set of 18th century Torah finial bells are seen on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston. (AP Photo/David Bazarsky)Newport, RI – A disagreement over the ownership of a set of Torah finial bells from Colonial times that is worth millions has led to dueling lawsuits between leaders of the nation’s first Jewish congregation and the nation’s oldest synagogue.

The dispute started after leaders of the nearly 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., agreed to sell the bells, called rimonim (pronounced rih-moh-NEEM’), for $7.4 million to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The sale is opposed by leaders of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, who say it owns Touro and the rimonim.

They argue the sale violates religious practice and will remove ownership of the bells from the Jewish community. They’re seeking to remove the Newport congregation from practicing at Touro, which was named a National Historic Site in 1946 and is visited by tens of thousands of people every year.

Both sides have sued in federal court in Rhode Island, and Congregation Shearith Israel has also sued in federal court in New York. U.S. District Judge William Smith in Providence is scheduled to hold a settlement conference Thursday.

Congregation Shearith Israel, which overlooks Central Park in New York City’s Upper West Side, was first established in 1654 by Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent. It is the nation’s first and oldest Jewish congregation.

The nation’s second Jewish congregation, also of Spanish and Portuguese origin, was established in Newport four years later, drawn by the religious tolerance established in the colony by Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams. A century later, the Newport congregation bought land and constructed a synagogue, which was dedicated during Hanukkah on Dec. 2, 1763. It was named for Isaac Touro, a Dutch Jew who became the congregation’s first spiritual leader.

George Washington visited Newport in 1790, and later that year wrote a now-famous letter to the city’s Jewish community affirming the new nation’s dedication to religious tolerance, saying it “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” The letter is now read annually at Touro.

By the early 1800s, the city’s Jewish population had dwindled as Newport’s importance waned. The city’s last Jewish resident left in 1822. In the decades to come, Touro fell into disrepair. Some items, including Torah scrolls and possibly the finial bells, were transferred to the New York congregation.

Touro’s leaders claim in its lawsuit that Congregation Shearith Israel became trustee for the Newport synagogue, while Congregation Shearith Israel says it took ownership of the synagogue, its cemetery, Torahs, rimonim and other objects. Touro reopened in the late 1800s, and the Newport congregation ultimately signed a lease in 1903 to rent Touro from Congregation Shearith Israel for $1 per year.

The finial bells were made in the 1760s or 1770s by Colonial silversmith Myer Myers, a Jewish contemporary of Paul Revere’s, who operated out of New York. They are placed on the handles of a Torah scroll when not in use. Touro has two of them.

Leaders of Touro in 2010 asked the auction house Christie’s to find a buyer for one of its sets, said David Bazarsky, former president of Touro Synagogue and a third-generation member of the congregation there. Their aim was to raise money to ensure Touro will always be maintained, have services and have a rabbi in residence while also finding a place that would allow the public to see the finial bells, he said.

At the time, the MFA was about to open a new Art of the Americas wing, which included a Newport room. The bells have been on display there since 2010, and the museum in 2011 offered to purchase the bells permanently, Bazarsky said.

“Our goal is really to take the money, put it into a trust, and endowment fund, and secure the future while having the opportunity to display the finial bells. We think it’s part of history, it’s part of the culture of America, and it’s overwhelmingly positive,” he said.

The MFA’s offer has since been rescinded until the ownership dispute is resolved, a spokeswoman for the museum said.

Touro’s lawsuit, filed in November, asks Attorney General Peter Kilmartin to intervene because he administers charitable trusts. Spokeswoman Amy Kempe says the office is reviewing the case.

Representatives for Congregation Shearith Israel declined to comment on the record about the lawsuit, but in court papers, they say they learned about the proposed sale in June and had hoped to settle before Touro sued. The New York congregation says Touro is bound to follow its religious traditions, and such a sale violates them.

It suggests a long-term lease of the bells to the museum, something Bazarsky said Touro is open to and has discussed with the MFA but which they can’t pursue until they resolve the question of who owns the bells. Still, he said, he is hopeful the two sides can work out an agreement.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Cong. Shearith Israel is one of the wealthiest shuls in the world. They have a lot of chutzpah in wanting to keep the remonim for themselves. The Touro Synagogue needs the funds to literally keep their doors open for all to enjoy. These $$$ will be put to good use. Let Shearith Israel administer the Touro Synagogue and pay all their bills for the next 99 years if they want to keep the remonim (money).

  2. How low have we sunk that we’ve come to a point where a dispute over a shul is fought in secular court rather than by bes din.
    Where are the rabbonim? Why is there no outcry over such a chilul hashem?
    One day we’ll still see heimishe chasidishe shuls going to court ch”v!
    (Got my point?)

  3. A beit din would have no power to stop the sale, because the museum wouldn’t need to listen to it and could sue in secular court to enforce its rights. Beyond that, what bein din would have jurisdiction? Shearith Israel is Western Sephardic, the current Touro community is Ashkenazi.

    Being somewhat familiar with the issue, Shearith Israel is clearly in the right. It’s undisputed that the Ashkenazim have been renting the property from Shearith. Given that, the Ashkenazim have some serious chutzpah trying to sell something that they only rent.

  4. By the way, after Touro left Newport he came to New Orleans and founded The Touro Infirmary- one of the finest hospitals in that city. I did bikur cholim there for a while.

  5. Poor Myer Myers, the Jewish silversmith who had a store on Pine Street in NYC, and who was compared to the Jewish Paul Revere. He was one of the parnassim of Shearith Israel in NYC (he is listed in the Incorporation articles). He is buried in Shearith Israel cemetery in Chatham Square NYC. His work is on display at the Metropolitan museum in the American wing. He fabricated the rimonim for shipment to Touro Synagogue. It’s clear that NYC has title, but I would still like to know who pays the insurance and storage bills. Isn’t this similar to art donors who lend their works to the Met, MOMA etc to boost the appraised value, but still retain title? Of course, the sale by Touro is similar to the Manhattan DA taking title to the “Wally” painting, on loan from overseas to MOMA in NYC, saying it belonged to the NYC Holocaust heirs. Everyone should be familiar with Myer Myers. Two recent shows were at the Yale U Art Gallery in New Haven (and a book), and a show celebrating Sephardim in NYC for 350 years. Incidentally, I was at Christie’s auctioneers in NYC several years ago, and a church which had purchased a Myers Myers tankard was selling it, forget the public trust.

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