RELIGION
08/15/2013 11:26 am ET

Torah Bells Legal Battle Between Touro Synagogue & Congregation Shearith Israel Continues

AP

Unsuccessful mediation to resolve an issue of ownership between New York City's Congregation Shearith Israel and Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island mean that lawsuits will be moving forward between the country's first Jewish congregation and the oldest synagogue in the U.S.

The dispute centers around a set of Colonial-era Torah finial bells, which Touro Synagogue agreed to sell to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts for $7.4 million in order to set up an endowment for the Touro building and a resident rabbi.

Colonial silversmith Myer Myers, a Jewish contemporary of Paul Revere, designed the bells in the mid-1700s, which decorate the handles of the Torah scroll when not in use. When the Torah is raised up, the ringing of the bells serves as a call for reverence.

The larger issue at hand involves the ownership of Touro Synagogue itself. Touro was established in Newport, Rhode Island, four years after the founding of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York in 1654. The synagogue, fell into disrepair after the last Jewish resident left Newport in 1822. Religious items including Torah scrolls and possibly the bells themselves were transferred to the New York congregation before Touro reopened in the late 1800s. The Newport congregation signed a $1-per-year lease in 1903 to rent Touro from Congregation Shearith Israel, although the New York community is currently trying to remove the Newport congregation from practicing there, claiming it is a violation of the terms of the lease, according to AP.

Congregation Shearith Israel opposes the sale of the bells, because they believe it violates religious practice and will take the bells away from the Jewish community. They have asked the court to remove the Newport congregation as its lessee and to affirm its ownership of the bells as well as the Touro Synagogue. On the other hand, the Newport Congregation Jeshuat Israel wants Shearith Israel members removed as its trustees as well as an affirmation of their ownership of the bells.

The museum has withdrawn its offer to purchase the bells until the dispute is resolved.

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