Thursday, August 21, 2008

Eight Torahs Stolen from Temple

Inside Job Suspected in $500,000 Heist

By Conor Greene

Eight torahs worth nearly a half million dollars were stolen from the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills, leaving the congregation reeling after the making the shocking discovery during a recent service.

About 60 members were in the midst of services last Saturday morning when the theft was discovered, according to congregant Herman Saltzman, who chairs the temple’s Pews and Memorials Committee. Since the torahs are always locked up, the congregation’s leaders and police suspect an inside job.

The discovery came during a part of the service when “somebody gets the honor of pulling back the curtain” to reveal the torahs, said Saltzman on Monday inside the temple at 71-35 Main Street. He was sitting in the temple’s last row on Saturday when the curtain was pulled back, revealing the theft. “I saw everybody standing, bewildered,” he said. “We couldn’t continue the service – it was something we had never seen before.”

Following the realization that the books were missing, the worshipers were left “standing in complete shock,” said Saltzman. “After a few moments of dazed shock one of the past presidents called the cops, who came in droves.”

Because the ark containing the torahs is connected to an alarm and includes steel gates, police are reportedly looking into whether somebody associated with the temple is involved in the theft. “It had to be an inside job – nothing was broken or compromised,” said Saltzman. “They are registered, but unfortunately like most things, there is a black market for it.”

He estimates each torah is worth between $30,000 and $60,000, adding that each is valuable due to the individual significance and meaning they carry. They were donated to the temple over the past 67 years “by people to commemorate special occasions in their lives,” said Saltzman.

A torah is a scroll of parchment containing the first five books Moses. They are handwritten and can take more than a year to complete, according to Saltzman.

He said that the congregation has been hit hard by the theft, and by the thought that it was an inside job. “We have a number of holocaust survivors in the congregation, and one called me and said it brings back all the bad memories,” he said, fighting back tears. “It’s a violation.”

Police have yet to announce any suspects or arrests in the incident, but are reportedly reviewing surveillance videos from nearby buildings and interviewing people who had access to the temple and to the three sets of keys that unlock the ark. They reportedly gathered fingerprints and other forensic materials at the scene.

Now, the temple’s members are left wondering who would do this, and how they will move forward. “How could this happen?” asked Saltzman. “All we want is them back. We’re not looking to sue or incarcerate – just bring them back.”

Above: Herman Saltzman stands in front of the ark from where eight torahs were stolen.

The Forum Newsgroup/photos by CONOR GREENE

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