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Trial begins in faceoff between historic synagogues

(JTA) – Opening statements began in a Rhode Island legal battle pitting America’s oldest congregation against the congregation that worships in America’s oldest synagogue structure.

The trial between Congregation Shearith Israel of New York City and members of a congregation that worships in Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island – both of which claim control over the Newport synagogue’s building and its contents – began Monday, June 1, in U.S. District Court in Providence.

The conflict began in 2012 when Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which worships at Touro, America’s oldest synagogue building, agreed to sell a set of 18th-century bells adorning a Torah scroll for $7.4 million to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The proceeds were used to set up an endowment to care for the Touro building and keep a rabbi in residence.

Shearith Israel, which is the oldest American Jewish congregation and has served as the trustee of Touro for nearly 200 years, in objecting to the transaction said that Jeshuat Israel did not have the right to sell synagogue property.

In opening arguments Monday, the attorney for Jeshuat Israel asked Judge John McConnell to remove Shearith Israel as trustee, arguing that until the cash-strapped Rhode Island congregation opted to sell the silver bells, the New York shul had neglected its trustee responsibilities, the Providence Journal reported.

Louis Solomon, a representative of Shearith Israel, described the leaders of Jeshuat Israel as “lessees of the property” who “have gone astray.”

“Selling your birthright is not a good idea,” Solomon added, according to the Providence Journal. “Selling someone else’s is even worse.”

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