Torah thefts stump police, Jewish community

Saturday, July 12, 2008 | 5:15 p.m. CDT; updated 4:55 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

KANSAS CITY — A Torah scroll valued at about $30,000 reported stolen from a St. Louis-area synagogue is one of a handful of Torah scrolls stolen in the past year in the United States, mystifying police and the Jewish community.

“It’s absolutely not common,” said David Pollock, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

No one seems certain of a motive, but speculation includes a hate crime or selling the sacred documents on the black market, according to The Kansas City Star.

The University City scroll near St. Louis had last been seen in the ark a week before it was stolen in May. Police Capt. Mike Ransom said police had no leads and found no sign of forced entry into the building, which was locked.

“I was unaware there was really any market for a Torah,” Ransom said. “You don’t pawn something like that.”

In April, two Torah scrolls and a laptop computer were stolen from a synagogue in Kenosha, Wis. Another Torah and an overhead projector were taken from a high school in a St. Paul, Minn., suburb in September. In Miami Beach, Fla., a Chabad house burned down in April. Police suspect that a Torah was taken before the fire started because investigators found no remnants of the scroll inside the ark and a rabbi found a piece of the Torah’s wooden post outside the next day.

Torah scrolls, entirely handwritten in Hebrew by a scribe, contain the five books of Moses. New scrolls cost $30,000 to $50,000 to produce. On average, a scribe who works six to eight hours a day produces one Torah each year.

“For people who don’t know Judaism, this is not like a book,” said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Missouri and southern Illinois. “It’s not a book that’s been taken but a centerpiece of religious observance.”

Torah theft was common 20 or 30 years ago, Pollock said. Back then, security was minimal and a few hundred scrolls disappeared each year.

But in 1982, Jewish organizations stepped up security. Pollock and others founded the Universal Torah Registry, which uses a superfine needle to give the sacred scrolls unique serial numbers.

But none of the scrolls reported missing this year has been recovered.

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