PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A disagreement over the ownership of a set of Torah finial bells from Colonial times that is worth millions has led to dueling lawsuits between leaders of the nation's first Jewish congregation and the nation's oldest synagogue.

The dispute started after leaders of the nearly 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., agreed to sell the bells, called rimonim (pronounced rih-moh-NEEM'), for $7.4 million to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The sale is opposed by leaders of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, who say it owns Touro and the rimonim.

They argue the sale violates religious practice and will remove ownership of the bells from the Jewish community. They're seeking to remove the Newport congregation from practicing at Touro, which was named a National Historic Site in 1946 and is visited by tens of thousands of people every year.

Both sides have sued in federal court in Rhode Island, and Congregation Shearith Israel has also sued in federal court in New York. U.S. District Judge William Smith in Providence is scheduled to hold a settlement conference Thursday.

Congregation Shearith Israel, which overlooks Central Park on New York City's Upper West Side, was first established in 1654 by Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent. It is the nation's first and oldest Jewish congregation.

The nation's second Jewish congregation, also of Spanish and Portuguese origin, was established in Newport four years later, drawn by the religious tolerance established in the colony by Rhode Island's founder, Roger Williams. A century later, the Newport congregation bought land and constructed a synagogue, which was dedicated during Hanukkah on Dec. 2, 1763. It was named for Isaac Touro, a Dutch Jew who became the congregation's first spiritual leader.

George Washington visited Newport in 1790, and later that year wrote a now-famous letter to the city's Jewish community affirming the new nation's dedication to religious tolerance, saying it "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." The letter is now read annually at Touro.

By the early 1800s, the city's Jewish population had dwindled as Newport's importance waned. The city's last Jewish resident left in 1822. In the decades to come, Touro fell into disrepair. Some items, including Torah scrolls and possibly the finial bells, were transferred to the New York congregation.

Touro's leaders claim in its lawsuit that Congregation Shearith Israel became trustee for the Newport synagogue, while Congregation Shearith Israel says it took ownership of the synagogue, its cemetery, Torahs, rimonim and other objects. Touro reopened in the late 1800s, and the Newport congregation ultimately signed a lease in 1903 to rent Touro from Congregation Shearith Israel for $1 per year.

The finial bells were made in the 1760s or 1770s by Colonial silversmith Myer Myers, a Jewish contemporary of Paul Revere's, who operated out of New York. They are placed on the handles of a Torah scroll when not in use. Touro has two of them.

Leaders of Touro in 2010 asked the auction house Christie's to find a buyer for one of its sets, said David Bazarsky, former president of Touro Synagogue and a third-generation member of the congregation there. Their aim was to raise money to ensure Touro will always be maintained, have services and have a rabbi in residence while also finding a place that would allow the public to see the finial bells, he said.

At the time, the MFA was about to open a new Art of the Americas wing, which included a Newport room. The bells have been on display there since 2010, and the museum in 2011 offered to purchase the bells permanently, Bazarsky said.

"Our goal is really to take the money, put it into a trust, and endowment fund, and secure the future while having the opportunity to display the finial bells. We think it's part of history, it's part of the culture of America, and it's overwhelmingly positive," he said.

The MFA's offer has since been rescinded until the ownership dispute is resolved, a spokeswoman for the museum said.

Touro's lawsuit, filed in November, asks Attorney General Peter Kilmartin to intervene because he administers charitable trusts. Spokeswoman Amy Kempe says the office is reviewing the case.

Representatives for Congregation Shearith Israel declined to comment on the record about the lawsuit, but in court papers, they say they learned about the proposed sale in June and had hoped to settle before Touro sued. The New York congregation asks the congregation at Newport be removed from practicing at Touro because, it says, they are violating the terms of the $1-per-year lease. It says Touro is bound to follow its religious traditions, and such a sale violates them.

It suggests a long-term lease of the bells to the museum, something Bazarsky said Touro is open to and has discussed with the MFA but which they can't pursue until they resolve the question of who owns the bells. Still, he said, he is hopeful the two sides can work out an agreement.

Click through the slideshow to see most and least Jewish states in America:
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  • New York

    4,046 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Looking north across W88th at doorway of B'nai Jeshurun on a cloudy afternoon in Manhattan, NY.

  • District of Columbia

    2,936 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Site of Washington Hebrew Congregation's building, 1898-1954, built on the site of the first building. Today home of the Greater New Hope Baptist Church.

  • New Jersey

    2,465 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Temple Emanuel signage along Kresson Road in Cherry Hill, New Jersey

  • Maryland

    1,443 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: A view of the front of the B'er Chayim Temple in Cumberland, Maryland

  • Connecticut

    1,333 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Ahavas Sholem Synagogue, White St., New Haven

  • Massachusetts

    1,229 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: The Adams Street Shul in Newton, MA.

  • Rhode Island

    840 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island

  • Pennsylvania

    805 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Former home of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia

  • Florida

    683 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Temple Emanu-El Synagogue, Miami Beach, FL

  • Illinois

    625 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: K.A.M. Isaiah Israel, Illinois.

  • California

    578 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Congregation Talmud Torah (Breed Street Shul), Los Angeles, CA

  • Ohio

    559 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Rockdale Temple, K.K. Bene Israel in Cincinnati, Ohio

  • Minnesota

    451 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Mount Zion Temple, St. Paul, Minnesota

  • Michigan

    449 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Beth-El Synagogue, Detroit, Michigan

  • Delaware

    431 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: First Adas Kodesch Synagogue

  • Colorado

    398 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Temple Emanuel, located at 1325 North Grand Avenue in Pueblo, County, Colorado.

  • Vermont

    390 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Old Ohavi Zedek synagogue in Burlington, Vermont.

  • Georgia

    374 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Synagogue de Savannah / Temple Mickve Israel

  • Missouri

    370 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Historic B'Nai Israel Synagogue, Cape Girardeau, Missouri

  • Virginia

    360 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Beth Israel Synagogue in Roanoke, Virginia, USA

  • New Hampshire

    321 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Chabad Lubavitch of New Hampshire Credit: Facebook

  • Arizona

    319 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, Arizona

  • Washington

    289 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Alhadeff Sanctuary of Temple de Hirsch Sinai, a synagogue in the First Hill/ Central District area of Seattle

  • Kansas

    271 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Ohev Shalom Congregation. This synagogue was established in 1877 in Kansas City, Kansas. The current facility was constructed in 1960/69 in suburban Prairie Village a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. It is the oldest operating Jewish congregation in Kansas. Credit: Flickr/ JPreisler.com

  • Nevada

    255 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: The Jewish Heritage Center Tucson, housed in an historic synagogue Ken Lund from Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

  • Tennessee

    246 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Temple Israel, Memphis, Tennessee

  • Texas

    241 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Congregation B'nai Israel in Galveston, Texas

  • Nebraska

    237 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Temple Israel, Nebraska. Credit: Flickr

  • Maine

    235 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Synagogue Lewiston Maine. Credit: Flickr / Portlandano

  • Oregon

    232 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Congregation Beth Israel, Portland, Oregon

  • Wisconsin

    223 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Gates of Heaven Synagogue, Wisconsin

  • New Mexico

    206 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Congregation B'Nai Israel - Albuquerque, New Mexico. Credit: Waymarking.com

  • Louisiana

    195 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Touro Synagogue, Uptown New Orleans, Louisiana

  • North Carolina

    190 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: The Temple of Israel, Wilmington, North Carolina

  • Indiana

    185 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Reform synagogue in Bloomington, IN

  • Kentucky

    157 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Byzantine Revival Synagogue that once housed the congregation of Adath Jeshurun. Credit: Flickr / JPreisler.com

  • Alabama

    153 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama

  • South Carolina

    141 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue

  • Iowa

    134 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Temple Emanuel in Davenport, Iowa

  • Alaska

    115 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Youth of Congregation of Beth Sholom observing Shabbat

  • Oklahoma

    101 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Temple Israel at Tulsa, Oklahoma

  • Montana

    86 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Congregation Har Shalom, Missoula, Montana. Credit: Facebook

  • West Virginia

    74 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Credit: B'nai Sholom Congregation located in Huntington, West Virginia.

  • Hawaii

    62 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Interior of Aloha Jewish Chapel in Hawaii

  • Utah

    59 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Congregation B'rith Sholem in Ogden, Utah

  • Arkansas

    53 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Temple Beth El, Arkansas. Flickr: joseph a

  • Mississippi

    43 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Temple Beth Israel, Meridian, Mississippi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

  • Idaho

    41 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue in Boise, Idaho

  • South Dakota

    35 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Synagogue of the Hills, South Dakota. Credit: Facebook

  • North Dakota

    26 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Jewish synagogue on the South side of Fargo, North Dakota

  • Wyoming

    23 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. Photo: Mt. Sinai Congregation in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Credit: Facebook