Hate crime or not, city rabbi troubled by Torah Scroll theft

| October 27, 2010

A thief made off with a copy of the Torah Scroll, the most revered article in a Jewish synagogue, from the Congregation Ohev Sholom, 1501 Cherry St., sometime between late Thursday and Saturday morning, according to city police and the temple's spiritual leader, Rabbi Shaul A. Rappeport.

"Our greatest fear is that this is a hate crime, that someone did this knowing how much it would hurt the Jewish community," Rappeport said Monday afternoon during an interview in his office.

"This particular Torah Scroll was a very small one. It probably weighs 3 to 4 pounds and is about a foot-and-a-half long and a foot wide," he explained.

The Torah is the entire five books of Moses (the first five chapters of the Bible) written in original Hebrew.

"It would have been very easy for someone to pick it up, throw it in a backpack and walk out with it. No one would have noticed," Rappeport said.

The financial value of the historical document is about $20,000, police and Rappeport said. However, the true value of the Torah Scroll to a Jewish congregation is priceless.

"It's a big occasion when a scroll is given to a congregation. There is a ritual, like an inauguration. It is treated with great reverence. When we welcome it into the sanctuary, there is a big feast, a ritual, a ceremony," Rappeport said.

"The same thing is done when a Torah is desecrated, God forbid. If it is burned, ripped or by age it reaches a state of disrepair, it gets buried and is treated like the closest thing to a human. It's given a funeral, it's buried, eulogies are given and customs of mourning are observed," he added.

"It's welcomed with joy, and when it's lost, it's a tragedy. It's the most sacred item in the Jewish religion," Rappeport said.

He believes clearly that someone entered the synagogue and deliberately removed the Torah, which had a dark velvet cover over it and was hidden behind a drawn curtain at the head of the sanctuary.

"The financial side of it is really not a concern, because we have insurance for it. Was this done to cause pain and anguish to the people? On the face of it, someone came in and went right for the most sacred and revered article (in the synagogue). That certainly might show their intention," Rappeport said.

Whoever did this "had to know what the Torah is and knew where it was located. It demonstrates some sort of knowledge and planning," he said.

The scroll was last seen late Thursday afternoon in the center of a sacred area called the Holy Ark, which is at the front of the sanctuary. "I saw with my own eyes," Rappeport said.

The scroll is behind a drawn curtain that is opened during services. The Torah was with other scrolls that the thief re-positioned in an attempt to conceal the theft, Rappeport said.

"They took the time to try to cover up their act," he explained.

"During the weekly Sabbath service on Saturday morning, we have a ritual where the ark is opened, the curtain is drawn back. I looked and looked, and saw that Torah Scroll was gone," Rappeport explained.

Police were alerted Saturday night after the Sabbath ended and efforts to locate the scroll were unsuccessful.

Nothing else was stolen, and there was no evidence that the house of worship was burglarized. Rappeport said the building was opened much of Friday as the synagogue was preparing for a bas mitzvah that was held during Saturday's service.

"If someone stole it for financial gain, they would have to be a very sophisticated thief. You couldn't take it even to any dealer of scrolls, because a dealer wouldn't take it without full proper documentation showing where it came from," Rappeport said.

The congregation reacted with "shock, fear and frustration" when it learned that the scroll had been stolen, he said.

"Who would do such a thing? Why would they do such a thing? No one could really believe that such a thing could happen," Rappeport said.

The stolen scroll is "decades old," but its exact age is not known, he said.

Rappeport pleaded that anyone who knows anything about the theft to call the police or him.

The congregation is taking emergency measures to make the building more secure, he said.



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Category: Synagogue/Jewish Security