Congregation Shearith Israel, which overlooks Central Park in New York City’s Upper West Side, was first established in 1654 by Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent. It is the nation’s first and oldest Jewish congregation.
The nation’s second Jewish congregation, also of Spanish and Portuguese origin, was established in Newport four years later, drawn by the religious tolerance established in the colony by Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams.
George Washington visited Newport in 1790, and later that year wrote a now-famous letter to the city’s Jewish community affirming the new nation’s dedication to religious tolerance, saying it “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” The letter is now read annually at Touro.
By the early 1800s, the city’s Jewish population had dwindled as Newport’s importance waned. The city’s last Jewish resident left in 1822. In the decades to come, Touro fell into disrepair. Some items, including Torah scrolls and possibly the finial bells, were transferred to the New York congregation.
Touro’s leaders claim in its lawsuits that Congregation Shearith Israel became trustee for the Newport synagogue, while Congregation Shearith Israel says it took ownership of the synagogue, its cemetery, Torahs, rimonim and other objects. Touro reopened in the late 1800s, and the Newport congregation ultimately signed a lease in 1903 to rent Touro from Congregation Shearith Israel for $1 per year.
The finial bells were made in the 1760s or 1770s by Colonial silversmith Myer Myers, a Jewish contemporary of Paul Revere’s, who operated out of New York. They are placed on the handles of a Torah scroll when not in use. Touro has two of them.
Leaders of Touro in 2010 asked the auction house Christie’s to find a buyer for one of its sets, said David Bazarsky, former president of Touro Synagogue and a third-generation member of the congregation there. Their aim was to raise money to ensure Touro will always be maintained, have services and have a rabbi in residence while also finding a place that would allow the public to see the finial bells, he said.
It suggests a long-term lease of the bells to the museum, something Bazarsky said Touro is open to and has discussed with the MFA but which they can’t pursue until they resolve the question of who owns the bells. Still, he said, he is hopeful the two sides can work out an agreement.