Dazzling Torah Bells Spark Legal Battle for Touro Synagogue and Shearith Israel

Federal Court Fight May Leave Rhode Island Shul Out in Cold

Shul Fight: The proposed sale of this 18th century pair of silver Torah finials, or decorative bells, has sparked an ugly feud between two of America’s oldest Jewish congregations.
david bazarsky
Shul Fight: The proposed sale of this 18th century pair of silver Torah finials, or decorative bells, has sparked an ugly feud between two of America’s oldest Jewish congregations.

By Paul Berger

Published February 06, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 4)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.