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The 18th century finials, crafted by the noted Jewish silversmith Myer Myers, have been on loan to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts since 2010. The following year, the museum offered the Newport congregation a staggering $7.4 million for the finials, several million dollars more than the congregation hoped to raise a few years ago.
It seemed like a win-win situation: The congregation’s financial future would be more secure, and the finials would be on permanent display in the New England area for the public to enjoy.
But one complicating factor held up the sale: Members of Shearith Israel have been trustees of Touro for more than 100 years, and they stepped in to block the transaction. Several months of negotiations, beginning in the summer of 2012, broke down, and by November both sides were in court. It was a battle reminiscent of a similar legal fight that took place between Jews in New York and Newport over Touro at the turn of the 20th century.
When Touro was consecrated, in 1763, it stood at the heart of a vibrant Sephardic Jewish community. Designed by the celebrated colonial architect Peter Harrison, the synagogue was a symbol of the success that many Jewish merchants enjoyed.
Newport’s venerated position in American Jewish history was cemented in 1790, when George Washington addressed the congregation during a state visit to the town. In his letter to the Jews of Newport, Washington delivered what is widely considered his most eloquent statement on religious liberty — that the American government would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
But just a few decades after that historic moment, Newport’s economy was in tatters, and the Jewish community disappeared.
During the early 1800s, the community’s religious objects and the keys to Touro were placed in the care of Shearith Israel. Two members of Newport’s Touro family left a total of $20,000 to Rhode Island and to Newport authorities to pay for the maintenance of Newport’s synagogue and the upkeep of its Jewish cemetery.
When Jews flooded back into Newport during the late 1800s, it was Ashkenazim rather that Sephardim that dominated the town. By the end of the 19th century, two competing congregations vied for the right to pray in Touro and for a slice of the Touro funds to pay a rabbi’s salary.