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Torahs stolen from Jewish Center

Herman Saltzman shows the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills' empty ark from which eight of the Torah scrolls were stolen. The ninth, and smallest, was left behind. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Alex Christodoulides

Worshipers arriving at the Jewish Center in Kew Gardens Hills for Saturday morning services were dismayed to find eight Torah scrolls and various other religious ornaments missing, but none of the usual signs of theft, raising suspicions that it was an inside job.

“I break down every time somebody asks about it,” said Herman Saltzman, the synagogue's chairman of memorials and pews, and whose wife is the synagogue's vice president. “We got to the point in the ceremony where the curtains are drawn to reveal the Torah, and all that was there was a white background.”

A police spokeswoman said the 107th Precinct responded to a 911 call Saturday at about 10 a.m. about stolen property at the synagogue at 71-35 Main St. in Kew Gardens Hills.

Congregants told police seven Torahs were missing from the shul, the spokeswoman said, but members of the center told the TimesLedger eight were gone. There was no sign of forced entry and the alarm had not gone off, the NYPD spokeswoman said.

The congregation is “shocked, amazed,” Saltzman said. Nobody has any idea when the Torah scrolls were taken, but eight of the nine scrolls kept in the ark are gone, he said.

The lack of any signs of forced entry has led the congregation to believe that this was an inside job. The sanctuary, which is only used for Saturday services and on holidays, is usually locked, and to get the scrolls one would have to disarm an alarm on the ark where the missing Torahs were kept, part a pair of wooden pocket doors, open a locked metal grate and then a set of velvet curtains, Herman Saltzman said.

“Nothing was broken or tampered with. Somebody had the keys to undo the alarm — that's the first step to enter the ark,” he said.

“Earlier this morning, the police wouldn't even confirm that it was a theft,” said Pat Dolan, the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association president.

Synagogue Vice President Sondra Saltzman said the Torah scrolls had come to the congregation at different times, some donated in the memory of family members.

Herman Saltzman said that in addition to the eight Torahs, the embroidered velvet coverings were missing as were silver breastplates and finials, and two pointers used to read the holy scrolls.

He declined to speculate on the total value of the missing items, but said the Torah scrolls alone are worth $30,000 to $60,000 each, and the various other ornaments are also quite valuable.

“The only thing we found, after the fact, were some of the tiny silver bells from the breastplates,” he said.

He said one Torah, the smallest of the nine kept in the sanctuary, was left in a corner of the ark and has since been moved elsewhere in the synagogue.

It would be difficult to sell the scrolls to a reputable buyer, but not impossible to sell them, Herman Saltzman said.

“Is there a market? Absolutely. Are there identification marks? Yes,” he said.

Each scroll takes about a year to be written out by hand on parchment or stretched skin, and the handwriting of each Torah scribe is not only discernible, but can be identified by checking with religious authorities, he said.

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