Trial wraps up in fight over control of oldest US synagogue, ceremonial bells worth $7.4M

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FILE - In this June 1, 2015, file photo, ceremonial bells belonging to the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., and worth more than $7 million are on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A federal judge overseeing a trial over control of the nation’s oldest synagogue and ceremonial bells said on Friday, Sept. 18, there is no “smoking gun,” in the battle between the congregation that worships at the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport and the nation's first Jewish congregation, in New York. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — A federal judge overseeing a trial over control of the nation's oldest synagogue and ceremonial bells worth $7.4 million said on Friday there is no "smoking gun" in the battle between the congregation that worships at the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and the nation's first Jewish congregation, in New York.

U.S. District Judge John McConnell made the comments during closing arguments in the lawsuits the congregations brought against each other. The two sides have argued bitterly about the smallest details, each claiming it owns the bells and disagreeing over what rights and responsibilities each has regarding the synagogue itself.

The trial drew on documents going back to the mid-1700s, in archaic language and writing styles that are often difficult to decipher.

"It is clear to this court, and I will state emphatically, there is no smoking gun. Apple did not email anyone a receipt," McConnell said. "How we think about ownership, it doesn't exist. We have to patch together 250 years of evidence. ... It's a matter of walking through history and looking through the evidence and figuring out when you look at the evidence, which weighs more?"

The synagogue was dedicated in 1763 and is a national historic site. It was visited by George Washington, who sent a letter to the congregation there in 1790 that is considered an important pledge of the new nation's commitment to religious liberty. By 1822, Jews had left the city and Touro's contents were turned over to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York.

Decades later, Jews returned and Shearith Israel sent items back, including two pairs of rimonim (pronounced rih-moh-NEEM'), bells that adorn a Torah scroll and were made by Colonial silversmith Myer Myers. It was those bells that prompted the dispute, after the Newport congregation, struggling with money, came up with a plan in 2012 to sell one pair to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $7.4 million. It planned to establish an endowment with the money.

The New York congregation stepped in to stop the sale. It is trustee of the Touro Synagogue. The Newport group says that it is the beneficiary of the trust and that the New York congregation has abandoned its duty as trustee to care for the synagogue. The New York congregation denies that, and also objects to the sale of the bells because it says selling such objects violates its religious beliefs.

"These things go back to Colonial times. They're part of this genius loci. They're part of the atmosphere of the place," said Lou Solomon, a lawyer for Congregation Shearith Israel.

Gary Naftalis, a lawyer for Congregation Jeshuat Israel, said that the Newport congregation had been in possession of the rimonim for more than 100 years and had repeatedly said the congregation owned the bells and that the New York congregation never objected until the deal was announced in 2012.

"There were 7.4 million reasons why they got interested in it," he said.

Naftalis said it was up to the New York congregation to prove it owned the bells and it has not done so.

Solomon used references to children or inmates at an asylum to make some of his points, prompting frowns and angry mutterings from the gallery, which was filled mostly with congregants from Newport. He likened the Newport congregation to a 10-year-old who comes home with something that doesn't belong to her but claims that it is hers, and objected to the Newport congregation's move to remove Shearith Israel as trustee, saying that would let the Newport congregation "decide what happens to the asylum."

Testimony in the bench trial ended in June. McConnell has not specified when he will make a decision.

"It'll be a while," he said, as he adjourned the trial.

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