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Mediation fails in lawsuits over oldest synagogue

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – Mediation has failed between the nation’s oldest synagogue and first Jewish congregation, whose leaders are suing each other over a set of valuable Colonial-era Torah finial bells and over who owns and controls the 250-year-old synagogue, attorneys for both sides told The Associated Press.

The lawsuits will now move forward.

The mediation, overseen by U.S. District Judge William Smith in Providence, began several months ago, but talks broke down, according to Steven Snow, an attorney who represents the congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., and Deming Sherman, an attorney who represents New York City’s Congregation Shearith Israel.

“That doesn’t mean it might not be successful at some point in the future, but right now mediation has ended,” Snow said Tuesday.

Neither Sherman nor Snow would say what the sticking points were, citing the confidentiality of mediation talks.

The lawsuits filed last year center on who owns the synagogue, a National Historic Site that is visited by tens of thousands of people every year. Both sides have sued in federal court in Rhode Island, and Congregation Shearith Israel, established in 1654, has also sued in federal court in New York.

The dispute started after leaders at Touro agreed to sell the bells, called rimonim, for $7.4 million to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Leaders of the New York congregation say it owns Touro, its cemetery, Torahs, rimonim and other objects.

The nation’s second Jewish congregation was established in Newport four years after the New York congregation, but in 1822, the city’s last Jewish resident left and Touro fell into disrepair. Some items, including Torah scrolls and possibly the finial bells, were transferred to the New York congregation.

Touro reopened in the late 1800s, and in 1903, the Newport congregation signed a $1-per-year lease to rent Touro from Congregation Shearith Israel.

Congregation Shearith Israel opposes the sale of the bells, saying it violates religious practice and will remove ownership of the bells from the Jewish community. The New York congregation is also seeking to remove the Newport congregation from practicing at Touro, saying it is violating the terms of the lease.

Touro’s leaders say Congregation Shearith Israel is only a trustee for the Newport synagogue and can’t dictate what is done there.

Touro has two sets of finial bells made in the 1760s or 1770s by Colonial silversmith Myer Myers, a Jewish contemporary of Paul Revere’s, who worked out of New York. Its congregation hopes to sell one set to establish a trust that will pay to maintain the synagogue and to ensure there is always a rabbi in residence. Its leaders have also said they hope displaying the bells at the Museum of Fine Arts would allow more people to see the bells.

The museum’s offer has been rescinded until the ownership dispute is resolved.

Touro this year is celebrating its 250th anniversary. On Sunday, it will hold its annual reading of a now-famous 1790 letter George Washington wrote to the Jewish community in Newport affirming the new nation’s dedication to religious tolerance, saying it “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan will be the keynote speaker at Sunday’s event.


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