Congregations Spar in Trial Over Pricey Bells

     PROVIDENCE (CN) – Two Jewish congregations as old as Methuselah kicked off a trial in Rhode Island on Monday over a pair of silver bells called rimonim worth $7 million.
     On loan to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for exhibition since 2010, the bells and the Torah scroll they hold are believed to be one of five pairs made more than 250 years ago by the Jewish colonial silversmith Myer Myers.
     Litigation over their ownership erupted when a congregation that has gathered at the nation’s oldest synagogue, the 252-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., tried to sell the bells to the museum in 2012 for $7.4 million.
     Though Congregation Jeshuat Israel has gathered at the synagogue for the last 100-plus years, Congregation Shearith Israel is the nation’s first Jewish congregation.
     Shearith Israel says it began leasing the synagogue to Jeshuat Israel for $1 a year in a 1903, that the rimonim are part of that lease, and that the latter congregation has no right to sell them.
     As the federal trial over the rimonim finally kicked off Monday in the birthplace of religious freedom, Shearith Israel president Louis Solomon lamented Jeshuat Israel’s “chutzpah.”
     “Selling your birthright is not a good idea,” he said. “Selling someone else’s is even worse.”
     A seeming font of proverbs, Solomon also remaked that Jeshuat Israel has “gone astray and they need to be brought back.”
     “You can’t sell what’s not yours,” Solomon added.
     Jeshuat Israel’s attorney Gary Naftalis presented a different image of the congregation, saying everyone but the rabbi who works there does so as a volunteer.
     With his client “one unexpected expense away from financial disaster,” Naftalis said Jeshuat Israel planned to put the proceeds of the sale in an irrevocable trust.
     Since Jeshuat Israel has two pairs of rimonim, it wanted “to keep the flame burning” by selling off one pair, Naftalis said.
     Holding his eyeglasses in one hand and a cup of water the other, Naftalis told the court Shearith Israel may “own the pen, but they haven’t put much ink in it.”
     Solomon meanwhile said Jeshuat Israel has “nothing that proves” ownership of the rimonim.
     “I thank the public for its interest in this case because it is the public who will lose,” Solomon said.
     In addition to the injunction allowing the sale of the Torah bells, Jeshuat Israel seeks to have Shearith Israel removed as trustee.
     Pacing back and forth in front of the podium, Naftalis told the court that Jeshuat Israel had “a strong presumption of ownership” over the rimonim because Shearith Israel, located in New York City, had abandoned the synagogue.
     The last contribution it offered was $100 in 1983, he said.
     Shearith Israel is only looking at “a very thin slice of the past,” and wants to “throw the congregation out on the street,” Naftalis added.
     Solomon tried to counter this argument by noting that the rimonim were on loan “with a string attached, and the string has now been yanked.”
     Insisting that his congregation is the trustee for the Jews of Newport, not for Jeshuat Israel, Solomon said that “the selling of a priceless ritual object” would deprive the community of its rightful property.
     A former member of Jeshuat Israel who attended the trial Monday had harsh words for the congregation.
     “They’ve alienated the community,” the man said, asking that his name not be printed. “They don’t have a Hebrew school. They’ve gone mad.”
     Shearith Israel came into overseeing the property in the early 1800s after the original community of the Touro Synagogue, the Congregation Yeshuat Israel, was discontinued when all the Jews left Newport.
     The synagogue was rarely used until Shearith Israel leased it to Jeshuat Israel in the early 1900s amid a revival of Newport’s Jewish community.
     An earlier squabble over ownership led a Rhode Island federal court to rule that Shearith Israel was the synagogue’s rightful owner in 1903.
     U.S. District Judge John McConnell Jr. is presiding over the rimonim trial, which is expected to last a month.

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