Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Oldest Synagogue Suit

In dueling suits over ceremonial bells that adorn the handles of the Torah scroll when not in use in the nation's oldest synagogue, a mediation has resulted in impasse. Jewish leaders participated in a mediation overseen by U.S. District Judge William Smith in Providence regarding a set of valuable Colonial-era Torah finial bells and about who owns and controls the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue. Touro is a National Historic Site with tens of thousands of visitors every year. Both sides have sued in federal courts; the synagogue's current congregation, Jeshuat Israel, in Rhode Island, and Congregation Shearith Israel (established in 1654), in New York. The dispute started after present leaders at Touro agreed to sell the bells, called rimonim, for $7.4 million to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Leaders of the New York congregation say it owns Touro, its cemetery, Torahs, rimonim and other religious objects. The nation's second Jewish congregation was established in Newport four years after the New York congregation, but in 1822, the city's last Jewish resident left and Touro fell into disrepair. Sacred items, including Torah scrolls and possibly the finial 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 is also seeking 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 has two sets of finial bells made in the 1760s or 1770s by Colonial silversmith Myer Myers, a Jewish contemporary of Paul Revere's from New York. Its congregation seeks to sell one set to establish a trust that will pay to maintain the synagogue and to ensure there is always a rabbi in residence. Congregation Jeshuat Israel maintains displaying the bells at the Museum of Fine Arts would allow more people to see them. The museum's offer has been rescinded until the ownership dispute is resolved. U.S. District Court Judge John J. McConnell Jr., has lifted a stay and a decision on transferring venue remains pending. Touro is celebrating its 250th anniversary and will hold its annual reading of the 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 at an event this weekend. See stories here-- http://abcn.ws/13i8ur8 and http://bit.ly/19r9pIk and synagogue website-- http://www.tourosynagogue.org/index.php/history-learning/synagogue-history