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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Torah vanishes from Bais Menachem

RABBI SAYS NO SIGNS OF FORCED ENTRY

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT


University City police are investigating the disappearance of one of the Torahs belonging to Congregation Bais Menachem — Chabad on Delmar. Rabbi Yosef Landa and the congregation discovered the Torah was missing during Shabbat services on May 24.

"When we opened the ark for the Torah service I realized one of the Torahs was missing," Landa said. "A big gasp went up throughout the congregation."

The synagogue keeps two Torah scrolls in the ark, said Landa. The congregation does not have a daily minyan so the last time he saw both Torah scrolls was the previous Shabbat.

"The Torah which was stolen is the only Torah we actually own," Landa said. "It is a very beautiful, tall Torah with a red mantle, with large letters in the script style of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari Zal. The other Torah we have is on loan to us."

Landa contacted the University City police department after Shabbat and officers arrived within a few minutes. They interviewed Landa, filed a report and told him he would be contacted by a detective during the week.

Further research by the Jewish Light has found three thefts of Torahs from Chabad congregations in other states in the past nine months. Asked about the other thefts, Detective Mike Gage who was assigned to the case said he would be looking into the other incidents.

"We will be contacting the other police departments to compare notes and look for possible connections," Gage said.

One of the Torah thefts occurred around the end of September 2007 from Yeshiva High School in Cottage Grove, Minn.

"A Torah scroll was stolen and a video projector," Rabbi Moshe Weiss, the school's director of development said. "The Torah scroll and projector have not been recovered."

In April, a Chabad House in Miami Beach, Fla., was burned down in an apparent case of arson being investigated by fire officials, the police and the FBI according to an article on MiamiHerald.com. It is believed the congregation's Torah scroll was stolen before the fire was set.

Two scrolls were discovered missing from Congregation Bnai Zedek Chabad in Kenosha, Wis., on April 15. The small congregation has only been around for about nine months, said Rabbi Tzali Wilschanski. The rabbi was giving a class in the social hall downstairs and closed the door to the sanctuary before he left for the evening.

"There was no sign of a break-in," Wilschanski said. "I am concerned somebody might have entered the synagogue and hidden in the sanctuary because the deadbolt lock was open in the morning."

The hazzan's oversize siddur, chumashim and the rabbi's laptop computer were also stolen, though the thief left behind the silver ornaments used to adorn to the Torah.

It is not clear whether any of the thefts are connected although there are similarities in some of the cases, such as the missing books. Landa had noticed a couple of books missing about two weeks before the Torah theft.

"I noticed the large oversized siddur used by the hazzan and a large oversized book of Haftarot were missing," Landa said. "We looked everywhere and thought perhaps someone had borrowed them and forgotten to return them."

Now Landa is wondering if the two incidents are related.

"My mind was racing when I saw the Torah scroll was gone though I don't know if the events are connected," Landa said. "All that was stolen were communal articles. They did not take the pushke which has about $30 to $40 in it."

The Torah scroll is valued at $30,000 to $40,000 according to the police report, though Landa said he would have to do additional research to assess the value of that particular Torah.

Landa said he e-mailed other rabbis to alert them to the theft so they could be more watchful at their own congregations.

"This is so disappointing," Landa said. "There was no sign of forced entry. We have an open door policy. People who frequent the congregation know the code to get into the building."

Barry Parnas regularly attends Shabbat services at the congregation and was there when the theft was discovered.

"I remember the Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark, being opened and only one Torah being in there," Parnas said. "The first person to respond was Rabbi Landa. I think he said, 'Sefer Torah missing.'"

Sometimes the shul will use the Torah someplace else but it is always back by Shabbat, said Parnas. He said the congregation was very shaken and surprised by the theft.

"A Torah doesn't seem like something that someone would steal," Parnas said. "It seems very odd to me that someone would take it."

Landa and members of the congregation checked around the community just in case someone had borrowed the Torah and other items for a shiva house or to study.

"This is very sad for me personally," Landa said. "I'm holding out hope that I will wake up from this nightmare and the Torah will be back. I assure whoever took it total anonymity. We just want the Torah back — no questions asked."

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