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Jewish Journal

The Case of the Missing Torah

by Gaby Wenig

March 4, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Did a rabbi steal the Sefer Torah? A Montreal resident claims that a Torah she loaned to a local senior home has illegally ended up in a Southern California synagogue. And now she's on the hunt to find it.

The 60-year-old scroll was housed at the King David Senior Residence in Montreal, and in August, the owners say they gave it to Rabbi Simcha Zirkind to find out its worth, who then took the Torah to New York, where a sofer, or religious scribe, in Brooklyn bought it from him for $8,000. The sofer then allegedly resold it for a higher sum to a New York-based philanthropist who donated it to a baal teshuvah (newly observant) synagogue somewhere outside of Los Angeles.

The dispute highlights a disturbing trend of trading religious goods of questionable origins.

But Montreal resident Betty Malamud-Bloomstone disputes that the Torah ever belonged to the King David. Malamud-Bloomstone claims that her father, Shloime, donated the Torah to the Rabbinical College of Canada in the late 1940s, and that the College loaned it to the old-age home in 1974 because the residents needed a Torah for services. According to Malamud-Bloomstone, even though the residence has been sold five times in the years since, the Torah has always remained in the chapel, on loan from the college.

"The Torah was very precious to my father, and he would turn over in his grave if he knew that it had been sold," said Malamud-Bloomstone, who is now trying to locate the California synagogue to which the Torah was donated.

Malamud-Bloomstone admits that without the cooperation of the Brooklyn sofer, who has divulged no other details of the sale, finding the synagogue is like "trying to win the lottery."

Neither Malamud-Bloomstone nor Josie Solito, the owner of the King David Senior Residence, allege that the sofer knew the Torah did not belong to Zirkind. Solito told The Journal that Zirkind had offered her the money from the sale, but she refused it.

Solito lodged a complaint with the Montreal Police Department against Zirkind.

Rabbi Saul Emanuel the executive director of the Montreal Vaad Hair, the city's Jewish council, told The Journal that the Vaad has issued a summons for Zirkind to appear and explain his side of the story.

Zirkind would not comment to The Journal, except to say that Solito's story was incorrect.

According to Malamud-Bloomstone, Zirkind maintains that the King David donated the Torah to him.

Up to 100 Torahs are stolen every year from synagogues in Israel alone, says Rabbi Yitzchak Goldshtein of Machon Ot, a Jerusalem-based Torah identification service (www.ott.co.il). Torahs are handwritten by sofers on parchment and are worth anywhere from $2,000 for a nonkosher Torah (one in which letters or words are missing) to $35,000 or more for a new Torah.

Generally, synagogues wanting to purchase a Torah scroll will contact a dealer, who -- budget permitting -- will either negotiate with a scribe to write a new scroll, or will find a secondhand scroll for the synagogue to purchase.

Stealing and selling a stolen Torah can be relatively easy. Many synagogues do not have good security around the Ark where the Torahs are kept. And since people in synagogues basically trust each other, no one would necessarily question someone walking out with a scroll. Also, without its velvet covering, one Torah is almost indistinguishable from another to the untrained eye, so a thief can easily concoct a story about the scroll's origin when he unloads it on a dealer.

Yet, synagogues can prove ownership of a Torah. Machon Ot runs the International Torah Registry, which assigns a unique code to each scroll and then enters it to a computer database. Machon Ot locates the code by placing a template of a line from the top of the scroll to the bottom in six different locations of the Torah, and then registers what words fall directly beneath each other. Since every Torah is handwritten, the shape and size of the words and letter differs slightly between each one, and no two would have exactly the same word alignment.

With a registry system in place like this (as well as other Torah registry system such as the Universal Torah Registry System, which uses a similar method of identification), any synagogue purchasing a secondhand Torah can get a reliable assessment of its provenance, providing it is registered. Many of the old Torahs in synagogues today are not registered.

In the case of the Montreal Torah, Malamud-Bloomstone says that she has evidence that the Torah was loaned to the old-age home and is now trying to recover the Torah. She has contacted the Board of Rabbis of Southern California to see if they could help her, and is considering placing ads in Jewish newspapers all over the state for anyone with information to step forward. The Board of Rabbis, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of California were unable to provide any leads. Once the Torah is recovered, Malamud-Bloomstone will consider hashing out the question of its ownership in the beit din (religious court).

"We just want to get the Torah back," Malamud-Bloomstone said.

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