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.
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When Jeshuat Israel wanted to make alterations to Touro 100 years ago, the New Yorkers stepped in, preventing the congregants from altering the building. “This is part of the warp and woof of who they are,” Zola said of Shearith Israel’s congregation.

In 1946, Shearith Israel trustees, along with Jeshuat Israel, signed a contract with the U.S. government, designating Touro a National Historic Site.

Jeshuat Israel does not contest Shearith Israel’s historic role at Touro. But its lawyers argue that during the past half-century, Shearith Israel has played a minor role in the synagogue.

The Newport congregation says it has spent $3 million renovating and restoring Touro. It also cites burdensome maintenance and running costs of a recently opened $14 million visitor center, whose construction was bankrolled by Ambassador John Loeb Jr. (Loeb declined to be interviewed about the legal battle.)

Meanwhile, the spark that brought both sides into court may have been extinguished. The Museum of Fine Arts’ offer to purchase the rimonim was good only until the end of 2012. A museum spokesman told the Forward on January 28 that the offer has been rescinded, in part because of the dueling lawsuits.

“Any offer to purchase the objects is on hold until the ownership dispute is resolved,” the spokesman said.

At the beginning of January, Judge William E. Smith gave both sides 90 days to try to find a resolution. Whatever the outcome, most observers are confident that because of its architectural, cultural and historical significance, Touro is in no immediate danger. In addition to its many admirers, the synagogue building is supported by the Touro Synagogue Foundation, whose mission is to preserve it as a historic site.

But the survival of the congregation remains in doubt.

George Goodwin, editor of the Journal Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, said many of Jeshuat Israel’s members are either elderly or “spend much of the year in Florida or elsewhere.”

If the congregation were to disappear, as its predecessor did almost 200 years ago, it would be a travesty, Goodwin said.

“Touro is so special because it’s both a museum and a living congregation,” Goodwin said. “So if it were to fail, it would be a horrible indictment of the organized Jewish community in Rhode Island, in New England and in America.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger


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