A civil Jewish war is brewing which threatens to make the feud between the Hatfields and the Mccoys in the 19th Century seem like child’s play. The fight is over the ownership rights to America’s oldest synagogue, the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and everything that it possesses.
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The feud is going on between two competing congregations there: Congregation Shearith Israel, the nation’s first Jewish congregation, which claims ownership of Touro and the congregation that worships in the building, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which claims that it holds the building in trust for the benefit of the Jews of Newport.
The two sides are facing off this week in a federal court in Providence. Things heated up this week when it was revealed that Jeshuat Israel tried to sell a pair of silver, ceremonial bells used to adorn Torah Scrolls for $7 million to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Needless to say, Shearith Israel was not happy with this.
Why are the ornaments worth so much? They are antiques.
Michael Katz, a Shearith Israel trustee, testified in court, “We were aghast that they were doing this without informing us in advance. We considered it a violation of the lease. We considered it a violation of trust, and it upset us very, very much.”
Shearith Israel believes that it is against Jewish law to sell the bells, as well as denying a piece of the community’s legacy from generations to come. “Shearith Israel wants future generations of worshippers to be able to experience these historic treasures and the fullness of Touro Synagogue’s rich history, ” wrote the congregation’s lawyers.
But Jeshuat Israel is in desperate need of funding. In a pretrial filing their lawyers stated, “Jeshuat Israel is just one unforeseen expense away from financial disaster.”
So now a federal judge will need to settle the dispute.