Providence, RI – The Rhode Island congregation that worships at the nation’s oldest synagogue was in financial straits in 2012 when they decided to sell a set of ceremonial bells worth millions of dollars, congregants testified Wednesday in a legal dispute between them and a New York Jewish congregation, the nation’s first.
The congregation that worships at the 250-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport and Congregation Shearith Israel from New York are suing each other in federal court.
The New York congregation owns the synagogue, but that is among the only facts in the case on which the two sides agree.
U.S. District Judge John McConnell on Wednesday, the third day of the bench trial, made reference to their many disagreements on the smallest matters.
“I remain eternally optimistic that the two of you can get along at some point about something,” he told the lawyers in the case.
The New York congregation says it also owns the bells. The Newport congregation says it owns the bells, and that the New York congregation simply holds the synagogue in trust for the benefit of the Jewish community in Newport, which it embodies. Touro is the only synagogue in Newport.
Amid the dispute, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston rescinded its $7.4 million offer to buy the bells.
Gary Naftalis, a lawyer for the Newport congregation, showed the court the 1787 will by one of the original trustees of the synagogue, Jacob Rodrigues Rivera, in which he says he leaves it “in Trust only, to and for the sole use, benefit and behoof of the Jewish Society of Newport to be for them reserved as a place of public worship forever.”
Congregants in Newport detailed how membership was dwindling at the synagogue, and talked about ways they tried to cut expenses and raise money.
But Michael Pimental, a former treasurer and current assistant treasurer of the board, acknowledged on cross-examination that he had not done financial projections into future years apart from annual budgets.
The congregants also testified they had no reason to believe the New York congregation had a claim on the bells.
Bea Ross, president of the board, said she discussed the potential sale of the bells with a member of Congregation Shearith Israel’s board in 2009, after a newspaper article appeared about the congregation’s financial problems and its considering selling the bells or other assets.
She said he didn’t comment and she never heard from him again until 2012, a few hours before the congregation voted 31-6 to explore a possible sale.