Trustee: Plan to sell bells at oldest US synagogue offensive

AP News
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Posted: Jun 08, 2015 5:43 PM

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The leaders of the congregation that owns the nation's oldest synagogue were offended and appalled when the congregation that worships there tried to sell a pair of ceremonial bells for $7 million, a trustee testified Monday as a trial over control of the synagogue entered its second week.

The two sides are fighting for control over the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport. Congregation Shearith Israel, the nation's first Jewish congregation, owns Touro and says it acts as landlord to the Newport congregation. The congregation that worships there, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, says the New York congregation holds the building in trust for the benefit of the Jews of Newport, which they embody.

Both sides say they own the bells, called rimonim. They are suing each other in U.S. District Court in Providence. Shearith Israel began presenting its case Monday.

Michael Katz, a Shearith Israel trustee, testified on questioning from the congregation's lawyer that they learned in June 2012 of the Newport congregation's plan to sell the rimonim to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

"We were aghast that they were doing this without informing us in advance. We considered it a violation of the lease. We considered it a violation of trust, and it upset us very, very much," Katz said.

A few days after the Newport congregation voted to proceed with the $7.4 million sale of the bells, the New York congregation sent a letter to the Newport congregation telling them to cease and desist from any sale. The museum's offer has since been rescinded.

Katz said the New York congregation, which is Orthodox and follows the Sephardic tradition, objected both because it violates their beliefs to sell religious objects and because it believes it owns the rimonim.

But while being cross-examined, Katz said that as of the day of the congregation's vote, "we weren't sure who owned them at that point."

Bea Ross, a leader of the Newport congregation, testified last week that she spoke to Katz on the phone in 2009 when an article came out in Forward, a Jewish newspaper in New York, in which the sale of the rimonim was discussed. Katz said he did not remember whether they talked about the sale at the time.

Ross and others previously testified the Newport congregation decided to sell the bells because their membership numbers were dwindling and they were concerned they would not have the money to keep a rabbi in residence, which could threaten Touro's existence as an active synagogue. They planned to set up an endowment.

Katz said that the New York congregation's sole responsibility to Congregation Jeshuat Israel was as a landlord and that it has no responsibility to support the Newport congregation financially.