PROVIDENCE, R. I. (AP) — A federal judge in Rhode Island has told lawyers for the oldest synagogue in the United States and the nation's first Jewish congregation not to speak with the media about lawsuits they've brought against each other.

U. S. District Judge William Smith in Providence is trying to mediate a settlement between the Touro Synagogue in Newport and Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City. The dispute began when leaders of the nearly 250-year-old Touro Synagogue agreed to sell a set of Torah finial bells from Colonial times for $7.4 million to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Congregation Shearith Israel, established in 1654, says it owns the bells, as well as the synagogue.

Smith met privately with the two sides on Jan. 3 and told them not to discuss the case with the media, representatives for both sides told The Associated Press this week.

David DiMarzio, clerk of court at the U. S. District Court in Providence, told the AP on Friday that Smith has not entered a gag order, so the lawyers do not face formal sanctions if they speak. He said Smith is following court procedures for such cases.

"The whole purpose of the settlement process is severely undermined unless the parties maintain a certain level of confidentiality," DiMarzio said.

Both sides have sued in federal court in Rhode Island, and Congregation Shearith Israel has also sued in federal court in New York.

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