- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The congregation that worships at the oldest synagogue in the U.S. felt “blackmailed” by the nation’s first Jewish congregation over the sale of ceremonial bells for $7 million, according to testimony Tuesday in a federal trial over control of the Touro Synagogue.

The future of the 250-year-old synagogue, in Newport, hangs in the balance in the dispute between the congregation that worships there, Jeshuat Israel, and the New York congregation that owns it, Shearith Israel. A bench trial is being heard in U.S. District Court in Providence.

Congregation Jeshuat Israel says Shearith Israel holds Touro in trust for the benefit of the Jews of Newport, which it embodies. Shearith Israel says it owns the synagogue and bells outright.

David Bazarsky, a former board president at the Newport congregation, testified for a second day on Tuesday about why they decided in 2012 to sell the bells to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $7.4 million.

Bazarsky said the congregation was concerned about the future of Touro, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year from all over the world.

He said its membership had been dwindling and it had slashed its expenses. He and other members of the congregation approached Sherith Israel twice to ask for support to help raise money to restore and maintain the synagogue, but were told “we have our own problems,” Bazarsky said.

The bells were made by the Colonial silversmith Myer Myers, among the leading silversmiths of his time. Touro has two sets, and they planned to sell one.

Bazarsky said the sale to the museum accomplished the congregation’s two goals: to establish an endowment in an irrevocable trust that would ensure Touro would have the money to remain open in perpetuity, and that the bells would be on view to the world at a museum.

He said a few days after they disclosed the sale, they received a letter from the New York congregation’s lawyers claiming ownership of the bells and to cease and desist.

A later email to him said the New York congregation would agree to share the income from a deal for the bells, but that “the principal belongs to (Congregation Shearith Israel); and there will not be a partial settlement of anything.”

“We took it as being blackmailed,” Bazarsky said.

The judge ordered the comment stricken.

A lawyer for the New York congregation spent much of Tuesday going through documents stretching back decades to show New York’s involvement and relationship with Touro, including a 1945 agreement with the U.S. government describing it as owner and “lessor” and the Newport congregation as “lessee.”

He also presented documents that showed the New York congregation responding to questions from the Newport congregation over the years, discussing payment of $1 per year in rent and other issues.

Bazarsky also acknowledged that he did not do any independent research into the ownership of the bells.

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