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Feud Over Oldest Synagogue in Nation Heads to Closing Arguments

Lawyers for two Jewish congregations feuding over the ownership of the United States’ oldest synagogue will make their final arguments before a federal judge in Providence, Rhode Island, on Friday.

The long-running dispute focuses on who owns the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue, the local Newport, Rhode Island, congregation that worships there or another in New York that received the deed in the 19th century at a time when the Jewish population had left the coastal city.

The fight erupted in 2012, when the Newport Congregation Jeshuat Israel tried to sell historic bells worth an estimated $7.4 million, in a bid to raise money to fund repairs to the two-story building. New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel sued to block the deal, saying the bells were religious objects.

Disputes over the ownership of a synagogue and its relics have become more common in the nation’s oldest cities in recent years, said Julie Wiener, managing editor of MyJewishLearning.com, an online encyclopedia of Jewish culture.

“The clash between historic preservation and a congregation’s needs is becoming more frequent,” she said in a phone interview. “The ownership of a synagogue can be very fuzzy.”

In 2010 dueling boards of directors fought over ownership of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue in New York’s East Village. A group living in the neighborhood set up a new board, arguing the existing board consisted mainly of people who had moved to the suburbs.

The New York group gained ownership of the Newport synagogue in 1822, when the city’s last Jewish resident moved out. By the late 1800s, however, Jews had returned to Newport, and the synagogue returned to use. The Newport congregation has leased the synagogue from the New York group ever since.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which originally bid for the bells, has since withdrawn its offer.

Newport’s first Jewish settlers arrived in the city in 1658. The group consisted of 15 families from Spain and Portugal, where Jews often faced persecution. Rhode Island was then the only New England colony that tolerated all religions.

Touro Synagogue has since become a symbol of religious tolerance in the United States. Shortly after taking office as president, George Washington wrote the congregation assuring them that religious prejudice would play no role in the newly formed United States government.—Reuters

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