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Testimony ends in fight over control of oldest US synagogue; closing arguments set for July

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Two congregations fighting for control over the nation's oldest synagogue and ceremonial bells worth millions say they are confident in their cases as testimony wrapped up this week in the bitter fight.

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 are suing each other in U.S. District Court in Providence over the synagogue and bells, called rimonim.

Testimony ended Thursday in the bench trial, which began June 1. The matter will be decided by a judge instead of a jury, and closing arguments are scheduled before U.S. District Judge John McConnell on July 20.

Jonathan Wagner, a lawyer for the Newport congregation, called the trial historic and said the continued vitality of the congregation was at stake. He noted that congregants nearly filled the courtroom every day of the trial.

Lou Solomon, who represented Shearith Israel, called the lawsuits "an embarrassment" and said he wished the parties could have settled out of court. He said the trial testimony showed that for 250 years, Shearith Israel has treated Touro and the Newport congregation "as a dear part of American Jewry."

"We want them to thrive, we want them to survive, but we want them to stay true to what we all should be doing: That is being an active house of worship where our ritual objects are in use and are not moribund in a museum," he said.

New York's Congregation Shearith Israel owns the synagogue, but Congregation Jeshuat Israel says it's held in trust for the Jewish society of Newport, which they embody.

The fight began when the Newport congregation tried to sell the bells to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts for $7.4 million. Both sides claim to own the bells.

The bells were made by Colonial silversmith Myer Myers. Touro has two sets of them, and the congregation planned to sell one. Congregation Shearith Israel also owns one set.

Members of Congregation Jeshuat Israel testified that they made the decision to sell only because they had struggled to raise money and cut back to the bare minimum of expenses. They said the deal with the museum would allow them to set up a permanent endowment and ensure the bells could be seen by the public.

A Shearith Israel board member testified that it was against their religious beliefs to sell the bells. The congregation also presented an art expert, Vivian Mann of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who said she believed the bells belonged to Shearith Israel based on papers that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

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