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Boston and Beyond

January 1, 2013

Rift grows between oldest synagogue, Jewish congregation

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — 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, 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.

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