(Photo by Meg O'Neil)
By Meg O’Neil
Court papers filed in New York and Rhode Island last week detail a disagreement about the ownership of a set of historic Torah scroll bells between the nation’s oldest synagogue, Touro Synagogue in Newport, and the country’s first Jewish congregation in New York City.
The 18th century silver and gold finial bells called Rimonim were designed by colonial silversmith Myer Myers, and have been on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston since 2010 when the Art of the Americas wing opened. When Touro Synagogue agreed to sell one of its two sets of bells to the museum for $7.4 million in June, leaders of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City opposed, claiming they were the true owners of not only the bells, but also all properties associated with Touro Synagogue.
“The sale of the bells would secure the future of the Synagogue,” said Bea Ross, co-president of Congregation Jeshuat Israel at Touro Synagogue. “It would make sure all the buildings and grounds are maintained, that it will always be open for services with a rabbi in residence, all while the bells are displayed in a world class museum as part of the arts and culture of America.”
The New York group claims that the congregation in Newport failed to “seek or obtain the approval and consent of Shearith Israel” in regard to selling the bells to the Museum of Fine Arts. It also called Touro’s strategy to ensure its future “unrealistic, illogical, and inappropriate.”
The history between the two congregations dates back to the mid-1600s. Congregation Shearith Israel was established in 1654 by Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families who were forced out of Brazil by the Spanish Inquisition, making it the first and oldest Hebrew congregation in the United States.
Four years later, in 1658, a group of roughly 15 Jewish families left Barbados and settled in Newport seeking religious freedom. Touro Synagogue was completed and consecrated in 1763 and known as Congregation Yeshuat Israel. However, the use of the synagogue was short-lived.
During the British occupation of Newport during the Revolutionary War, nearly all of the merchant ships owned by the city's Jewish merchant families were seized, leaving the families’ livelihoods ruined.
Although the majority of Jewish families who left Newport during the war ultimately returned, they never regained their pre-war prosperity, prompting many to uproot yet again. Most families headed to New York and Boston.
By 1822, with virtually no Jewish families left in Newport, the congregation shut the doors to the synagogue. According to the court documents:
“After 1822, the Synagogue, cemetery, and ritual items of Yeshuat Israel were left in the care of Stephen Gould [a Quaker], who took care of the property for several years. Thereafter, ownership of the Synagogue and real and personal property, including the Rimonim, were conveyed to Shearith Israel.”
For the next 60 years, the Synagogue was used only occasionally for funerals. If any repair work was needed on the Synagogue, Gould sought permission from Shearith Israel.
With a resurgent Jewish population in Newport in the late 1800s, Touro Synagogue was reopened for regular services and was reconsecrated in May 1883, this time renamed congregation Jeshuat Israel. When it re-opened, Torah scrolls and their bells were returned to Newport from New York.
A struggle for control of the Synagogue in the early 1900s was settled in 1903. In the agreement, Shearith Israel would lease Touro Synagogue to the Newport congregation for $1 year.
In 1946, Touro Synagogue was designated a National Historic site. According to the current suit, under an agreement between the U.S. Government, Shearith Israel, and Jeshuat Israel, the owner of the Synagogue was confirmed to be Shearith Israel.
Today, the Synagogue in Newport has an active congregation of over 100 families, in addition to being open for guided tours. The New York congregation plays little role in its day-to-day operation.
That point is made clear in Jeshuat Israel's response to the initial suit.
“Since 1946, the New York congregation and its board of trustees has done virtually nothing to carry out its duties and responsibilities as trustees," they write, noting that the New York congregation did not contribute to the $3 million renovation to Touro Synagogue in 2006 – a tab that Touro picked up itself. Nor did it play a role in the 2009 construction of a $14 million visitor center that was added to the property by former Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr.
The court documents reveal that Shearith Israel wants to see “Jeshuat Israel … removed as a lessee of Touro Synagogue and related real property, and as lessee of all personal property, including all religious objects, owned by Shearith Israel.”
According to Ross, the main issue is a question of title. “We have to be certain there’s no cloud on the title in order to go forward,” she said.
Past congregation president David Bazarsky added, “Now that we have restored the building to the tune of $3 million and have added a $14-million visitor center, the next step is to ensure the future so that the Synagogue will always be open for services. We get tens of thousands of visitors who come to worship there. It’s a very unique property that we want to see not become only a museum, but always be maintained as an active house of worship.”
He added, “I’m hopeful that this can be resolved. Our focus is asking the court to determine ownership of the bells.”